Heather Blake: If human rights are to be at the heart of British foreign policy, Singapore's treatment of British journalist Alan Shadrake must be roundly condemned
Alan Shadrake is a UK citizen, writer and journalist who met an unexpected fate last year when arrested upon his arrival in Singapore for the signing of his most recent book, Once A Jolly Hangman. Mr Shadrake was convicted for contempt of court; the verdict is six weeks imprisonment and a fine of $20,000 to pay – simply because he wrote a book that the Singapore government did not like. Mr Shadrake’s book criticises the Singapore death penalty; a zero tolerance code of practice that has been called into question by international NGOs and human rights lawyers.
This is the very system that Shadrake’s book calls into question, and the Singapore judiciary’s handling of Shadrake’s case is proving the author’s accusations correct. It is ludicrous that anyone should be given imprisonment for writing a book, especially one that also happens to be well researched and written.
William Hague has repeatedly stated that human rights should be at the heart of UK foreign policy. A great part of the British is the innate value placed on freedom of press and expression. Along with this innate understanding, comes the responsibility to impress these values when human rights are violated. It is not just a responsibility left to the UK, but all Commonwealth member states.
At the Heads of Government Meeting in November 2009, an Affirmation of Commonwealth Values and Principles was agreed upon. The Affirmation stated that the values and principles of Commonwealth members “solemnly reiterated” commitment to 12 core values; some of which are human rights, tolerance, respect, understanding, and freedom of expression. Singapore is a Commonwealth member and is very much part of such an endeavour to strengthen the values and principles that the Commonwealth represents.
It is from diversity of membership that the Commonwealth can build in strength; however, as the “voluntary association of sovereign independent states” the Commonwealth has a collective duty to make sure that the common values and principles are upheld within the member states own governments, and also by fellow Commonwealth members.
The Coalition Government aspires to lead by example; the powerful statement by Minister of State, Jeremy Browne, which spoke of his “dismay” over the Shadrake case and Singapore’s disregard to all international human rights laws of press freedom and freedom of expression, was a step in the right direction. The statement had some impact. After the statement was released, Mr Shadrake was suddenly reminded by the Singapore Attorney General that he could apply for leave of jurisdiction. Mr Shadrake, however, had to decline leave of jurisdiction due to the hefty $80,000 the AGC insisted that he pay, to guarantee his return, before being allowed to leave the country. Mr Shadrake must now remain in Singapore while he awaits his appeal.
One would think that this was a man who committed a heinous crime, or was a serious threat to society. No, all this because the Singapore judiciary does not like what was written about their practice of the death penalty. The only threat would be to not vehemently oppose such human rights abuses, leaving open the door for such violations to happen continuously.
The UK must remain constant in its opposition to such a flagrant disregard to the fundamental human right of press freedom; and in this case, a UK citizen is at the very heart of the concern. Singapore must also be reminded of its “solemn” responsibility to uphold the values, principles, image and credibility of the Commonwealth to which it belongs.