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The part Singapore can play to stop genocide

Updated On: Nov 27, 2010

Next May, Singapore will be reviewed by the United Nations (UN) Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Geneva.

The UPR is a unique process which involves a review of the human rights records of all 192 UN member states once every four years. It has been described by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon as having "great potential to promote and protect human rights in the darkest corners of the world".

Singapore is certainly not a "dark corner of the world". It has generally done well in promoting good governance, the rule of law and combating corruption. Many would agree that its laws also guarantee affordable education, public housing and a high standard of medical care for its citizens.

Few know that Singapore is also a party to important human rights treaties, such as the convention preventing and punishing the crime of genocide, which came into force in 1951. Genocide - the deliberate destruction of an ethnic, racial or religious group - is as widely misunderstood as it is condemned.

When I tell my Singaporean friends that I represent genocide survivors at the UN-backed Khmer Rouge Tribunal which is trying former Khmer Rouge leaders for heinous mass atrocities, I am often greeted with a quizzical look. It is a look which suggests, "that's interesting but what does it have to do with Singapore?"

My recent encounter with an eminent lawyer and former Sudanese Foreign Minister, Dr Francis Deng, serves as a reminder that there is nothing abstract about genocide and mass atrocities. Indeed, Singapore may have much to offer when it comes to detecting and preventing their occurrence in the region.

Dr Deng is now the UN's Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide and is tasked with raising awareness about genocide; providing early warning of potential genocides to the UN; and recommending methods to prevent or halt this heinous crime.

In speaking at a seminar chaired by Professor Tommy Koh at the National University of Singapore recently, Dr Deng did not tritely assert that genocide should be punished but rather, chose to place it in its proper context.

He noted that while genocide is an identity-related crime, the differences in identity alone do not generate conflict. Rather, conflict stems from inequalities associated with those differences, with regards to access to power and resources, provision of social services and the enjoyment of human rights.

Seen in this light, genocide is not just a mass crime but a manifestation of systemic governance and developmental problems.

Dr Deng praised Singapore as a country which has competently tackled such problems; a meritocracy which has strived since the racial riots of 1964 to promote a common sense of belonging on equal footing, while giving due recognition to pluralism in society.

Like Dr Deng, I believe that there is much to be said for putting forward a "Singapore model" of genocide prevention. With greater integration among Asean member states, more should be done to identify the normative frameworks, case-law and policies best capable of holding together Asean's diverse peoples in a cohesive democratic structure, while maintaining respect for the rule of law and good governance, and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms - all principles enshrined in the Asean Charter.

Utilising lessons from Singapore's own experience with regards to managing cultural diversity, our government officials, scholars and practitioners should collaboratively support Dr Deng's mandate in the following ways.

First, establish a university-based research centre to act as a focal point for discussion, research, analysis, training and capacity building focused on genocide prevention and its co-relation to democracy, the rule of law and good governance and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the region.

Second, develop and maintain a database of information on - and context-specific responses to - possible genocide and mass atrocities in the region, taking into account Asean's richly diverse ethnic population.

Third, constructively engage and consult with UN agencies, Asean and its regional commissions, such as the Asean Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights, about situations of possible concern.

In the wake of regional conflict and unrest, genocide prevention presents a perfect opportunity for Singapore to contribute to peace and security in Asean.

It is also high time that we nurture a new generation of lawyers and scholars who appreciate that there is a delicate balance between harmony and pluralism and are prepared to refine Singapore's model of diversity management for Singapore and the world.







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