Almost every day we are barraged with the promise that globalisation brings communities together, reduces geographical distances and connects disparate people through what appears to be a shared lifestyle, held together by common values. We are led to believe the colourful diversity and sanctity of life is promoted and safeguarded. Yet sadly, we witness the inescapable dissonance between the ideal and reality. We see extreme poverty, conflict, degradation of our precious environment and abuse of vulnerability that can lead to torture and loss of life on account of being different. Rights are snatched, diminished or denied and the notion of universality in the treatment of human beings is nowhere in sight.
Such injustices create a key role for someone to stand back and take a long, hard and dispassionate look at the reality, challenge it and to advocate on behalf of everyone and everything that is in danger of getting swamped: bringing the marginalised minority in from the cold to protect, giving it a voice and access to the necessities and due entitlements of life.
Dare to be different and become an International Human Rights Lawyer (IHRL).
This is a role that demands a passion to fight injustices, travelling around our interconnected world to expose and challenge its flaws and weaknesses, so that it gains greater capacity for compassion and respect diversity. There is no specific test to get into such a role. You become a lawyer in a particular jurisdiction first and then specialise in international human rights: you define your destination. Once you get there, you would find many others there, varying from sole practitioners to law firm associates and legal officers working for the United Nations (UN). The skills-set required is varied. The ability to be a good lawyer is as important as having diplomatic skills; being able to get alongside and connect with the dispossessed, inarticulate and abused as well as often making use of social media to highlight your cause(s).
The journey can be potentially daunting, afflicted by many thoughts including rewards and recognition; personal sacrifices required (such as being away from home for long periods of time) and whether you can make that ultimate difference. But the journey must start from a critical self-reflection. Do not be afraid to challenge your instinctive feelings and thinking, so that you have clarity of purpose. If you are unsure of where to start, read a bit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a critical foundation for the modern international human rights law. Reward and recognition are not always linked to being associated with high profile UN offices and international cases. Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were great examples of human rights lawyers who passionately fought against powerful institutional injustices and re-shaped history.
It is equally important to be aware that those who need your advocacy are also amongst those who are least able to pay. Your motivation for the role is therefore important. It needs to sustain your intellectual interests and the wider ambitions. You will also often be fighting against powerful organisations. There are personal dangers but rewards are high in seeing justice getting done and the feeling of liberation amongst those in the world who perhaps felt they would never receive recognition and escape from oppression.
My own journey into law and the eventual direction it took was an unplanned one. I did not start off thinking I would become an IHRL, though I knew from quite early on what my passions and angsts were. Along the way, I have reaped reward and recognition, yet at several junctures, I have fallen and risked much at my personal expense, health wise and wealth wise.
My motivation to pen this article down stemmed from several conversations I have had with fellow lawyers and especially younger ones who have asked me what does one need to achieve to deserve the right to call oneself an IHRL. It is a rather privileged label, no doubt. There is little in literature by way of definitions and eligibility criteria. I am therefore taking a reflective approach in this article on some of the highlights in my journey so far.
I addressed the European Parliament’s Sub-committee on Human Rights in 2006 on the lack of due process safeguards when bringing up the Nigerian case of Amara Tochi for EU’s intervention. This case involved many different strands including travel to Nigeria to prepare the team of Nigerian lawyers assisting on Tochi’s case to file a writ of mandamus to get the High Court to compel the Nigerian Government to file a complaint with International Court of Justice (ICJ) to protect its citizen from being unlawfully deprived of his life. The meeting with the speaker of the Nigerian Parliament together with the Nigerian Human Rights Minister to brief them on the parliamentary motion calling for the intervention of the Nigerian government to lodge an appeal with Singapore to stave off Tochi’s execution, was important in influencing the agenda.
In 2017, in a similar action, I assisted in Prabgaran’s death penalty case to get the Malaysian lawyers to file a Judicial Review to compel the Malaysian government to file an ICJ action to save its citizen.
I have further worked with top London QC’s who assisted me in court during the challenge before the Court of Appeal on the Mandatory Death Penalty in Yong Vui Kong’s case, which also involved me briefing the Malaysian Minister of Foreign Affairs, calling on the Malaysian Government to intervene. The campaign on Vui Kong impacted on legislation in both countries.
Top QC’s from London also worked alongside me in the section 377A case relating to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 2013.
These experiences offer a distinct and stimulating international dimension to the role, especially when you are working with international legal minds in relation to cases turning on complex legal arguments involving international human rights law. An IHRL cannot claim be one if he/she misses out working with the law capital of the world (i.e. London). We need to constantly tap into international expertise to collaborate across complex jurisdictions and legal knowledge.
The ‘Little India’ riots in Singapore offered me the opportunity to connect not only with lawyers in India (exploring international legal action) but also campaigning alongside foreign NGOs to make a difference to a difficult situation. Conducting press conferences were an important part of the strategy to highlight the issues.
The ability to very quickly alert local or international media on concerned issues is a trait necessary for any IHRL. Here, building relationships and networking with key journalists and media reporters can make a big impact on the actions that an IHLR is working on. Press conferences are crucial in the local and international fora, part and parcel of the work of an IHRL must do in raising awareness of the client’s case and seeking attention to get broader appeal for justice. From my own experiences, I have witnessed time and time again the louder one’s voice is in the public arena for what may start off as a private challenge, the more likely one is able to make a meaningful difference to the case at hand.
The work does not always have a neat beginning and ending over a tightly defined timescale. For example, I first addressed the European Parliament’s Sub-committee on Human Rights on Tochi’s case in 2006, but then filed a complaint with UN via UN mechanism to challenge executions of Tochi in 2016. My experience and influence in this regard was further reinforced by filing of complaints in relation to Van Nguyen and Shanmugam in 2015. Those outcomes were extremely positive: the UN responded by issuing a statement to halt the executions in each of these 3 cases. It is not easy to get the UN’s attention in issuing official statements. Part of what an IHRL does is to exhaust international and UN remedies. It strengthens the advocacy of the client’s case.
Working and staying connected with local and international NGOs to feedback content/know-how relevant to human rights issues: spreading the knowledge and sharing the skills are vital to the role of an IHRL. My close relationship with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International has served to enhance the impact of my contribution to the human rights agenda in Singapore. This is a testament to how you can build powerful alliances and professional relationships which can be mobilised to support different causes in your field.
The world evolves, but some things remain the same. I am currently working as an external consultant with a legal team in Tanzania to provide subject matter expertise on how to challenge the mandatory death penalty for murder as cruel and inhuman and degrading punishment. I am due to travel to Tanzania in August 2018. I am also working on an international environmental case that will require me to fly down to affected areas to make direct inquiries and meet with the claimants (local settlements). Such cases can sometimes be threatening to the life of an IHRL when large multinationals and conglomerates are involved. But an IHRL needs to travel often and at all times be prepared to assist fearlessly.
I place an immense high regard to information, knowledge and skills-sharing. Like how I learned from my mentors, I too believe in ensuring that the new generation of lawyers are adequately trained to realise the ambition of a world free of injustices, prejudice and discrimination. I will be travelling to Myanmar and other ASEAN jurisdictions in 2018 to conduct a Public Interest Litigation and Cause Lawyering skills and workshop training jointly with a Myanmarese public interest litigator
Daring to be different undoubtedly comes with a distinct identity and myriad challenges, but enormous professional and personal rewards in making a tangible difference to a polarised world.
Come join the enchanting journey!
A version of this article first appeared on The Online Citizen at www.theonlinecitizen.com/2018/04/27/dare-to-be-different