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  • Country recommendations on civic space for Universal Periodic Review

    CIVICUS makes joint UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) submissions on civil society space in Mozambique, Niger, Paraguay and Singapore

    The United Nations Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review is a unique process which involves a review of the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States once every 4.5 years.


    CIVICUS and its partners have submitted joint UN Universal Periodic Review submissions on four countries to the UN Human Rights Council in advance of the 38th UPR session (April-May 2021). The submissions examine the state of civil society in each country, including the promotion and protection of the rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression and the environment for human rights defenders. We further provide an assessment of the States’ domestic implementation of civic space recommendations received during the second UPR cycle over 4-years ago and provide a number of targeted follow-up recommendations.

    Mozambique- CIVICUS and JOINT – Liga das ONG em Moçambique examine and raise concerns on the deteriorating environment in which journalists and civil society activists operate. Physical attacks, intimidation, arbitrary arrests and threats have become increasingly common, especially for civil society activists and journalists working or reporting on sensitive issues such as the Cabo election monitoring, transparency and accountability, election monitoring, transparency and accountability and corruption.

    Niger (French) - CIVICUS, the West African Human Rights Defenders Network and the Nigerien Network of Human Rights Defenders highlight the level of implementation of the recommendations of received by Niger during its previous review in 2016. Despite constitutional guarantees on freedom of peaceful assembly, expression and association, the Nigerien government has targeted human rights defenders and subjected them to arbitrary arrests and judicial persecution. Peaceful assemblies are repressed and bans are imposed on planned protests while journalists are detained for reporting on issues affecting the state. Restrictive legislation like the 2019 Cyber Crimes Law are used to prosecute representatives of civil society.

    Paraguay (Spanish) - CIVICUS and Semillas para la Democracia address concerns regarding the growing hostility, stigmatisation and criminalisation faced by HRDs, and particularly by the members of peasant, Indigenous, trade union and student movements, as well as by journalists reporting on protests, organised crime, corruption and human rights abuses. Along with the restrictions on the freedom of expression that result from the use of criminal defamation statutes and economic pressures from both private and public actors, the submission further examines the multiple ways in which dissent is stifled in the streets, as protests are prevented through the application of legislation imposing undue time and place restrictions and authorisation requirements, protesters are criminalised under the Penal Code, and demonstrations are violently suppressed by the security forces.

    CIVICUS y Semillas para la Democracia abordan sus preocupaciones relativas a las crecientes hostilidad, estigmatización y criminalización que enfrentan las personas defensoras de derechos humanos, y en particular las que integran los movimientos campesino, indígena, sindical y estudiantil, así como los periodistas que reportan acerca de protestas, crimen organizado, corrupción y violaciones de derechos humanos. Además de las restricciones de la libertad de expresión derivadas de la aplicación de estatutos de difamación penal y de presiones económicas de actores tanto privados como públicos, el documento examina las múltiples formas en que el disenso es ahogado en las calles, en la medida en que las protestas son impedidas mediante la aplicación de legislación que impone restricciones indebidas de tiempo y lugar y requisitos de autorización, los manifestantes son criminalizados bajo el Código Penal, y las manifestaciones son violentamente suprimidas por las fuerzas de seguridad.

    Singapore - CIVICUS and The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) highlight ongoing use of restrictive laws, including defamation laws, to criminalise criticism of the authorities by HRDs and critics and the draconian restrictions on peaceful assembly. It also documents new laws that have been deployed to restrict media freedom and freedom of expression online and to harass the political opposition, journalists and civil society.


    Civic space in Mozambique, Niger, Paraguay, and Singapore are rated as Obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor.

    See all of our UPR submissions here.

     

  • Joint Statement: End judicial harassment of Singaporean activist Jolovan Wham

    CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance and its partners Asia Democracy Network (ADN), Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), Forum Asia, Instituto de Comunicación y Desarrollo (ICD), West African Human Rights Defenders Network, Experts for Security and Global Affairs Association, Balkan Civil Society Development Network (BCSDN),  European Civic Forum (ECF) and International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) call on the Singapore government to drop contempt charges against human rights activist, Jolovan Wham for his comments on social media criticising the judiciary. Our organisations believe the charges brought against him are politically motivated, aimed to suppress his freedom of expression.

     

  • Singapore must expand civic space and end undue restrictions on fundamental freedoms: UN Human Rights Council Side Event

    Amidst emerging threats to civic space, representatives from civil society called on Singapore’s Government to abide by its international legal obligations and commitments to respect fundamental freedoms in a Human Rights Council side event held on 29 September, a day before the adoption of the outcomes from Singapore’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR).

     

  • Singapore yet to address civic freedom gaps ahead of UN review

    Human rights groups CIVICUS and FORUM-ASIA call on UN member states to urge the government of Singapore to protect civic freedoms as its human rights record is examined by the UN Human Rights Council on 12 May 2021 as part of the 38th session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). 

    At the country’s second UPR in April 2016, UN member states made 22 recommendations that directly related to civic space. Singapore subsequently accepted eight recommendations, committing to taking concrete measures to, among others, “ensure that freedom of opinion and expression including for individuals and organizations communicating via online public platforms”, “protect freedom of the press” and ensuring “the full enjoyment of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.”

    In a joint submission to the Human Rights Council this UPR cycle, our organisations assessed implementation of these recommendations and compliance with international human rights law and standards over the last five years. The submission found that since 2016, Singapore has persistently failed to address unwarranted restrictions on civic space, specifically related to the rights to the freedoms of peaceful assembly and expression.

    Singapore has yet to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which imposes obligations on states to respect and protect the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly, and expression. Further, numerous recommendations to establish a national human rights institution have been ignored.

    Despite commitments to freedom of expression which are guaranteed in the Constitution, the government has continued to use restrictive laws such as criminal defamation provisions under sections 499 to 502 of the Penal Code to criminalise criticism of the authorities. Civil defamation lawsuits have also been deployed to sue and seek hefty financial compensation in terms of damages from individuals who express dissent.

    The 2017 Administration of Justice (Protection) Act, a vaguely worded contempt of court law, has been used to prosecute human rights defenders for criticism of the courts, under the guise of protecting the judicial system. The authorities have also failed to reform laws restricting media freedom and introduced the 2019 Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) to harass the political opposition, activists, journalists and civil society.

    ‘States must take the opportunity of Singapore’s human rights review to hold the government to account for violations. The authorities have not only failed to deliver on the human rights commitments it made, but has continued to use the judicial system to silence dissent and introduced additional laws to restrict freedom of expression,’ said David Kode Advocacy & Campaign Lead at CIVICUS

    The 2009 Public Order Act (POA), which aims to regulate assemblies and processions in public places, has been systematically used to restrict peaceful assembly in Singapore. It has been used regularly to harass and investigate activists and critics for no other reason than expressing their views and organising peaceful gatherings, and even towards solo protests. The POA law was further amended in 2017 to stipulate that organisers must apply for a permit at least 28 days in advance of an event and also provided the police commissioner with specific authority to reject any permit application for an assembly “directed towards a political end” if any foreigner is found to be involved. Such restrictions are inconsistent with international law and standards. 

    ‘The right to peacefully protest is an essential part of a democracy, which Singapore claims to be. It is absurd that such acts are consistently disrupted under the guise of public order. This clearly shows the lengths the Singaporean authorities are willing to go to silence dissent and must be reflected in recommendations made during the country’s UPR,’ said Shamini Darshni Kaliemuthu, Executive Director of FORUM-ASIA

    As highlighted in our joint submission, CIVICUS and FORUM-ASIA urge states to make recommendations to Singapore which if implemented would guarantee the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, and the state’s duty to protect.

    Key recommendations that should be made include:

    • Ensure that human rights defenders are able to carry out their legitimate activities without fear or undue hindrance, obstruction, or legal and administrative harassment. 
    • Repeal or amend repressive laws including the POA and the 2017 Administration of Justice (Protection) Act, the Sedition Act, in accordance with the ICCPR and the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. 
    • Reform defamation provisions in the Penal Code, in conformity with Article 19 of the ICCPR, and refrain from abusing civil defamation provisions to curtail the freedoms protected under Article 19. 
    • Allow unfettered access to online information resources by repealing the POFMA, which criminalises and imposes arbitrary restrictions on the right to the freedom of expression and the right to access information, and adopting a law on accessing information, in line with international human rights standards.
    • Amend the Public Order Act 2009 in order to guarantee fully the right to the freedom of peaceful assembly, in line with the ICCPR and other international human rights standards. 
    • Drop charges or quash convictions against human rights defenders, government critics, journalists and bloggers for exercising their fundamental rights to the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, and review their cases to prevent further harassment. 
    • Ratify international human rights treaties in particularly the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and ensure its implementation in law and practice.

    The examination of Singapore will take place during the 38th Session of the UPR. The UPR is a process, in operation since 2008, which examines the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States every four and a half years. The review is an interactive dialogue between the State delegation and members of the Council and addresses a broad range of human rights topics. Following the review, a report and recommendations are prepared, which is discussed and adopted at the following session of the Human Rights Council. 

     

  • SINGAPORE: ‘Being a human rights lawyer has had a huge personal cost’

    RaviCIVICUS speaks with constitutional lawyer and human rights advocate M. Ravi about civic space, human rights and his activism against the death penalty in Singapore.

    A prominent anti-death penalty advocate, Ravi is a founding member of the Anti‐Death Penalty Asia Network and the Singapore Anti‐Death Penalty Campaign community group. Due to his work, he has faced harassment from the Singaporean authorities.

    Over the past few years, Ravi has also worked on business and human rights, sustainability and environmental, social and governance issues. He is a founding member of the Malaysian Association of Public Advocacy for Nature.

    What is the current state of civic space in Singapore?

    Civic space is highly restricted as a result of the repressive measures taken by the government, which has curtailed freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly for years. The authoritarian ‘rule by law’ has reached a toxic state in which the average Singaporean feels terribly alienated. The upside of this is the growth of an opposition force determined to remove the ruling People’s Action Party from power.

    How did you start working on death penalty cases?

    In 2003, I was instructed in a last-ditch attempt by the family of a young Malaysian death row inmate, Vignes Mourthy, to save him from execution. The case came to me through JB Jeyaretnam, a leading opposition politician at the time. I faced procedural hurdles against reopening the case, and on the eve of the execution I asked Chief Justice Yong Pung How whether an innocent man can be hanged due to procedural reasons, to which he responded that he could. That response shook my conscience, so I started campaigning against the death penalty. I founded an organisation, the Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign, to support the families of death row inmates and ultimately end the death penalty.

    What challenges have you faced?

    I took up a number of human rights constitutional cases and death penalty cases on a pro bono basis. The demanding nature of the work and the emotional aspect of death penalty cases also affected my wellbeing. Being a human rights lawyer has had a huge personal cost.

    This work has also been highly taxing on my resources. The Attorney General has filed several complaints with the Law Society and I have been prosecuted as a result. The courts slammed me with adverse personal cost orders to the tune of S$70,000 (US$ 52, 661) in my representation of death penalty cases. I had to raise funds to settle.

    A complaint that the Law Society lodged against me with the Court of Appeal in a death penalty case is now before a Disciplinary Tribunal. I have recently been suspended for five years for criticising the conduct of the prosecution of another Malaysian citizen, Gobi Avedian, who would have been executed if not for my late-stage application, in response to which the Court of Appeal acknowledged that there had been a miscarriage of justice. But for my advocacy for Gobi, I paid a huge price in the form of a five-year suspension.

    I have been often subjected to intimidation and state harassment. I have recently been investigated by the police over Facebook posts in relation to campaigns on death penalty cases as constituting contempt of court.

     

    How has this impacted on your work?

    All these repressive moves have greatly impeded my work. Lawyers in Singapore are cowed into passivity and fear, contributing to a weak legal profession. This has deprived me of the support of my peers and only increased my vulnerability. Fortunately, I have received a great deal of support from my international network of lawyers and civil society activists.

    In 2020 and 2021 I was handling almost all death row cases. I represented 26 inmates at one go and most of this work was pro bono. But the personal cost orders against me had a chilling effect on the profession: lawyers were increasingly unwilling to get involved in late-stage applications for fear of state reprisals. After my suspension, 24 inmates I represented filed an application in court and appeared on their own, as they had no lawyers to argue their cases. Some of them have already been executed. My suspension has deprived them of a voice in court. Fear is crippling the legal profession.

    Has any progress been made towards the end of the death penalty?

    There has been progress. As a result of the various legal challenges, I and others brought to court in the case of Yong Vui Kong, another young Malaysian on death row, between 2010 and 2012 an indirect moratorium was placed on death penalty cases. This contributed to the amendment to the law in respect of the mandatory death penalty, giving judges discretion in death penalty cases. Yong was saved from the death penalty, along with two of my clients and several others.

    The vigorous campaign held across Malaysia to save Yong also precipitated a call for reform of death penalty laws in Malaysia. Executions were also halted, culminating in the recent abolition of the mandatory death penalty in Malaysia. A recent campaign and legal challenges to save another client of mine, Nagenthren, from being executed further strengthened calls by civil society, media, lawyers, politicians and others to abolish the death penalty in Malaysia.

    What can civil society and the international community do to support human rights activists in Singapore?

    They can issue solidarity statements and bring the human rights violations levelled against human rights activists to the United Nations and other international bodies. It is time for such cases to be brought to international courts or to the national courts of states such as France and the USA, which have universal jurisdiction. For example, the USA’s Alien Tort Statute gives US federal courts jurisdiction over certain international human rights law violations that occurred on foreign soil and plaintiffs affected can file a claim against a foreign country in the USA. This means that Singapore can be sued in countries which has universal jurisdiction laws for its egregious human rights violations in death penalty cases.


    Civic space inSingaporeis rated ‘repressed’by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Follow@MRavilaw on Twitter.

     

  • SINGAPORE: ‘Making politicians the arbiters of truth invites abuse’

    Ja Ian ChongCIVICUS speaks to Ja Ian Chong, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore, about the so-called ‘anti-fake news law’ currently under discussion in Singapore, which is expected to be passed in 2019. The bill has raised fears that understandable concerns about the deliberate spread of misinformation are being used to restrict free speech arbitrarily. Professor Chong has published several articles and authored a book on international security and foreign policy, with a specific focus on Northeast and Southeast Asia and China. 

    What are the overall conditions for civil society in Singapore?

    Civil society in Singapore is small. Much of this has to do with a common belief in Singaporean society that being active in civil society invites trouble from the state. Civil society groups complain of systematic pressure from the state when they perform their legitimate functions and activities; however, they often do so in private. As a result, corroborating what exactly happens can be challenging. Still, there are individuals and groups that are highly active despite these concerns.

    The main restrictions that civil society currently faces in Singapore are limited space for pluralism in the media, constraints on the freedom of peaceful assembly and fear of lawsuits, including through the application of defamation laws. Singapore has a very high legal bar for setting up printing and broadcasting services and there is apparent state involvement in the running of print and broadcast media. In recent years, someone was convicted of illegal public assembly and processions merely for organising a meeting in a private space via Skype with Joshua Wong from Hong Kong. Another person was convicted of organising an illegal public procession after holding a mirror and walking in front of Parliament House on his own. The state claims that these restrictions are necessary to maintain order and social harmony in Singapore.

    The government recently proposed an ‘anti-fake news’ law. What do you think its intent is, and why has it caused concern in civil society?

    The stated intent of the Protection against Online Falsehood and Manipulation Act is to address the threat of disinformation campaigns. That is an objective around which there is little disagreement, including from civil society. The concern in civil society in Singapore, as I understand it, is that the law is vaguely worded and gives sweeping powers to politicians. The way the text defines what a “falsehood” is seems tautological; any government minister can define a statement as false based on “public interest,” including considerations such as friendly relations with foreign states, public tranquillity and the diminution of public confidence in state agencies. Additionally, the law appears to be based on a rather simplistic view that the ability to discern between what’s true and what’s false, or to determine what is ‘fact-like’, is stable across time. But that is not the case: in fact, knowledge progresses when scholars destabilise and challenge what many people deem to be established facts.

    There is concern that making politicians who will have to stand for election the arbiters of truth invites abuse. Even when the courts have the last word on whether a statement is false, the minister responsible for declaring whether a statement is false is also the first instance of appeal. Even the Minister of Law, whose Ministry oversees the bill, recently admitted in an interview that he is unable to vouch for the actions of future governments.

    Section 61 of the bill seems to have been particularly controversial. What is it about?

    Section 61 would allow a minister to exempt any person or class of people from the restrictions imposed by the bill. There is significant uncertainty over why the clause was included in the bill. Officials state that such clauses are common in Singaporean law. Still, that does not explain why it would be necessary in this case. After all, not all laws have such a clause. As far as I know, the Penal Code does not. This raises questions over who the exemption is meant for, and under which conditions it may be used. What seems clear is that this clause creates potential for abuse. A future ruling party facing a tough electoral battle, for example, might want to exempt its own agents from charges of engaging in disinformation.

    What can we learn from Singapore that could help us in the battle against misinformation?

    The Singaporean experience suggests that efforts to address ‘fake news’ and disinformation may benefit from greater precision, including in the drafting of any legal texts. It is also critical to put the responsibility for addressing ‘fake news’ in the hands of an agency that not only is independent but is also widely viewed as independent. One reason ‘fake news’ and disinformation can be effective is because they create the impression that state entities and politicians are self-interested rather than public-minded. Efforts that do not take this consideration seriously enough can undermine their own ability to address disinformation. Crucial as well is to have a public education system that inculcates critical thought in assessing information and independent factchecking sources that can verify the veracity of information free from the influence of partisan, corporate or parochial concerns.

    The Singapore experience also suggests that addressing disinformation and ‘fake news’ requires many allies, from the state to civil society to academia, the media and citizens. States are usually tempted to take charge of everything at the expense of other groups. This approach can be counterproductive, given that it easily plays into a narrative that powerful elites engage in when addressing ‘fake news’ for political gain. When this happens, the fact that academia, the media, civil society and citizens have been marginalised results in society having fewer defences against disinformation and ‘fake news’. Done inappropriately, well-intentioned attempts to address disinformation and ‘fake news’ can inadvertently increase the risk a society faces from such phenomena.

    Civic space in Singapore is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

     

  • SINGAPORE: ‘Opposition parties were given unfavourable coverage by the state media and had difficulty accessing voters’

    CIVICUS speaks to human rights defender Jolovan Wham about the recent elections in Singapore, which were held in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. TheCIVICUS Monitor has documented the use of restrictive laws in Singapore against civil society activists, human rights defenders, lawyers, independent online media outlets and members of the political opposition, who face prosecution, including through defamation suits and contempt of court charges.

    Jolovan Wham

     

    Has there been any disagreement around whether elections should be held, when, or how?

    Yes. Opposition parties were largely against it as the COVID-19 pandemic had not abated and holding the elections might pose a public health threat. They were also concerned that physical rallies and door-to-door visits would be disallowed, which would hinder their campaign efforts.

    And indeed, it was more difficult to connect face to face with voters when a one-metre distance had to be maintained during walkabouts and door-to-door visits. Everyone had to give their speeches and connect with voters online.

    Some changes were introduced so elections would proceed in the context of the pandemic. Voting time was extended by two hours to take the longer queues caused by social distancing into consideration. But the possibility of online voting was not discussed. And older people and those who were frail may have not participated for fear of getting infected with COVID-19.

    What was the state of civic freedoms ahead of the elections?

    The ruling People’s Action Party’s (PAP) control of all public institutions is a major civic freedom issue. It means it gets to shape the political discourse according to its agenda and set the rules of the game to its advantage. For example, the elections department, which draws electoral boundaries, reports to the prime minister himself. Most civil society groups are afraid of engaging in the elections in a meaningful way for fear of being seen as ‘partisan’. If a civil society association is associated with an opposition party, it may lose funding, support and patronage for its work.

    A recent report by the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Parliamentarians for Human Rights documented structural flaws that prevented the election from being fair, including the prime minister’s broad powers over the entire electoral process without any effective oversight. The environment in which the Singaporean people were able to exercise their right to participate in public life was heavily restricted. Key opposition candidates had been targeted with lawsuits by members of the PAP, and voters in opposition-led constituencies fear reprisals for not voting for the PAP. Fundamental freedoms, which are intrinsically linked to free elections, are limited as the government controls the media and uses restrictive laws against dissenting and critical voices.

    How did this affect the chances of the opposition?

    Opposition candidates and parties had to rely solely on social media to get their message out, because of unfavourable coverage by state media. They also had difficulty accessing voters because of the PAP’s monopoly, manipulation and control of national grassroots groups, unions and organisations, on top of the difficulties involved in holding physical rallies in the context of the pandemic.

    The elections were held on 10 July. The PAP secured 83 parliamentary seats but faced a setback as the opposition made minor but historic gains. The Workers’ party, the only opposition party in parliament, increased its seats from six to 10 – the biggest result for the opposition since independence. The PAP popular vote dipped to 61 per cent.

    What were the main issues the campaign revolved around?

    For the PAP, the campaign revolved around smearing opposition candidates, accusing them of peddling falsehoods and of having nefarious agendas and engaging in character assassination. Scaremongering tactics were also used: the electorate were told that only the PAP could get Singaporeans out of the COVID-19 pandemic and that having more opposition members in parliament would thwart these efforts.

    Opposition parties, on the other hand, focused on telling the electorate that they were in danger of being wiped out of parliament as they held fewer than 10 elected seats out of almost 90. Issues such as the high cost of living and immigration were other key issues raised by the opposition.

    Civic space in Singapore is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

     

  • Singapore: Anti-fake news bill another tool to suppress criticism and dissent

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    The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) and CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, are extremely concerned by a new bill that has been proposed by the Singaporean authorities to counter false news. Our organisations believe that the stated aim of the bill - to deal with online misinformation - is merely a smokescreen to increase curbs on the freedom of expression, and to further silence dissent in this already tightly controlled State. We urge the authorities to discard the bill immediately.

     

  • Singapore: Drop investigations and cease harassment against human rights defenders

    Seven (7) human rights organisations urgently call on the Singaporean authorities to drop their criminal investigations of human rights defenders Kirsten Han and Rocky Howe and cease harassing them through legal processes for their work.

     

  • Singapore: Drop police report against independent media outlet New Naratif

    We, the undersigned civil society organisations, urge the government of Singapore to order the Elections Department (ELD) to immediately withdraw its police report against New Naratif, and to cease abusing the law to harass critical voices and independent journalists.

     

  • Singapore: Joint Statement on the Sentencing of Human Rights Defender Jolovan Wham

    We, the undersigned human rights organisations, strongly condemn the politically-motivated prosecution of Singaporean human rights defender Jolovan Wham. After convicting Wham in January 2019 of ‘organising a public assembly without a permit,’ the State Court sentenced him, on 21 February, to a fine of S$3,200 (US$2,367), or by default, 16 days in prison. 

     

  • Singapore: Jolovan Wham’s sentencing highlights repressed civic space

    The sentencing of Singaporean activist Jolovan Wham highlights the increasingly repressive space for activists and human rights defenders in Singapore, said the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, and Think Centre in a joint statement today.

     

  • Singapore: Open letter to parliamentary candidates and political party leaders to prioritise fundamental freedoms

    As Singaporeans prepare to go to the polls in parliamentary elections on 10 July 2020, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation and the International Commission of Jurists urge all parliamentary candidates and political party leaders to commit to respecting and protecting human rights, particularly fundamental freedoms, as part of their mandate.

     

  • Singapore: Withdraw Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill

    Today, eleven undersigned organizations called on the Government of Singapore to withdraw the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill (‘FICA’). FICA’s provisions contravene international legal and human rights principles – including the rights to freedom of expression, association, participation in public affairs, and privacy – and will further curtail civic space, both online and offline.

    On October 4, 2021, the Parliament of Singapore passed FICA, three weeks after it was tabled on September 13 by the Ministry of Home Affairs purportedly to “prevent, detect and disrupt foreign interference in (...) domestic politics”. This was despite serious concerns that the law could undermine civic freedoms – raised by members of the public, civil society, legal fraternity, independent media, political opposition, academia and industry in Singapore. The bill went through both its second and third readings in one parliament sitting and FICA was passed without significant amendments to address key concerns.

    While the protection of national security may be a legitimate aim, FICA contravenes the rule of law and the principles of legality, necessity and proportionality under international human rights law. Overbroad and ambiguous provisions draw within its scope a wide range of conduct, activities and communications “directed towards a political end in Singapore”. As a result, almost any form of expression and association relating to politics, social justice or other matters of public interest in Singapore may be ensnarled within the ambit of the legislation – making it difficult, in turn, for the average individual to reasonably predict with precision what conduct may fall foul of the law. Vague provisions also allow for unfettered executive discretion in interpretation and implementation of the law. Unlimited executive discretion – together with severe penalties under the law – can result in executive overreach into what it deems permissible as civic discussion and public debate. FICA also provides no mechanism for independent judicial oversight or provision of remedy where human rights violations occur as a result of the enforcement of its provisions. The law thus fails to provide for the least intrusive mechanisms to achieve its stated aim of protecting national security while greatly enhancing the risk of executive abuse.

    FICA empowers the Minister for Home Affairs to order the removal or disabling of online content – undermining the right to freedom of expression. The Minister is, for example, empowered to order publication of mandatory messages drafted by the authorities, ban apps from being downloadable in Singapore, and order disclosure of private communications and information, when the Minister “suspects or believes” that someone is undertaking or planning to undertake online communications activity “on behalf of a foreign principal”, and that it is in the “public interest” to act. The law makes it a criminal offence to undertake “clandestine” electronic communications on behalf of a foreign principal under certain circumstances, including when that activity “diminishes or is likely to diminish public confidence in (...) the Government or a public authority” or “is likely to be directed towards a political end in Singapore”. Activity “directed towards a public end” includes conduct influencing or seeking to influence government decisions or public opinion on matters of “public controversy” or “political debate” in Singapore. The government can also designate individuals as “politically significant persons” after which they can be required to follow strict limits on sources of funding and disclose all links with foreigners or foreign entities.

    FICA’s provisions can also facilitate violations of the rights to freedom of association and participation in public affairs. “Conduct” committed in connection with a “foreign principal” and “directed towards a political end in Singapore” is criminalized where this involves “covert” communication or “deception” – which is defined as including any “deliberate” use of “encrypted communication platforms”. The expansive and vaguely worded definition of activities “directed towards a political end” can cover a broad range of activities – including social justice advocacy, artistic commentary, academic research, social enterprise or journalistic reporting – carried out by, among others, members of civil society, academia, media, the arts and industry. Meanwhile, the overbroad configuration of connection with a “foreign principal” as “arrangements” with any “foreigner” or “non-Singapore registered entity” that can be “written or unwritten” brings within the law’s remit nearly all forms of cross-border collaboration or engagement. Use of “encrypted platforms” as a reflection of “covert” communications also allows for criminal intent to be inferred from a wide range of modes of communications via modern electronic devices and platforms – including through encrypted messaging and email services; and the use of online platforms through secure connection services, such as virtual private networks (VPNs).

    FICA will disproportionately impact members of civil society, independent journalists, academics, researchers, artists, writers and other individuals who express opinions, share information and collaborate to advocate on socio-political issues and matters of public interest. As their work can involve critical opinions and is often underpinned and supported by cross-border collaboration, research and funding, they are exposed to increased scrutiny and sanctions under FICA. The issues on which they work will also come under increased State oversight and control. Executive oversight and control can, in turn, infringe not only their rights to freedom of expression and association but the rights of other individuals in Singapore who rely on their work to participate in public affairs, which includes conduct of citizens to “exert influence through public debate and dialogue with their representatives or through their capacity to organize”.

    Severe penalties under FICA are disproportionate. In addition, many of those penalties may be imposed without adequate independent oversight or remedy in case of human rights violations, which can result in a chilling effect on civic space and discussion. Directions can be issued by the authorities to censor, restrict or block access to online content, accounts, services, apps or locations deemed to violate the law. The law also allows for the authorities to designate “politically significant” individuals and entities and order them to “disclose foreign affiliations” and “arrangements” or to end “reportable arrangements”. However, there is a lack of independent oversight over these restrictions and designations. These directions may only be appealed to a Reviewing Tribunal appointed by the President on advice of the Cabinet, and decisions made by this Tribunal cannot be appealed to the High Court except for non-compliance with procedural requirements. Further, individuals can face criminal sanctions under the law for “clandestine foreign interference by electronic communications activity” and non-compliance with directions, which may result in steep fines and imprisonment terms. These criminal offences are arrestable and non-bailable.

    These penalties and restrictions not only risk undermining the right to privacy, but increase the risk of individuals self-censoring and deliberately deciding not to participate in or engage with cross-border networks to avoid potentially falling foul of the law. Their negative impacts can be particularly severe on independent online platforms, which can be banned from receiving funding or other financial support from foreign individuals or entities, and on journalists, political commentators, civil society members and community researchers who often nurture public opinion and debate through information, opinions and advocacy shared online.

    In light of these significant concerns, we request that the Government of Singapore withdraw FICA. The law risks imminently and substantially narrowing already limited civic space in the country – particularly where this space is significantly restricted through abuse of other existing laws such as defamation and contempt of court provisions; the Protection Against Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), the Public Order Act and the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act. The imminent enactment and future enforcement of FICA will significantly undermine the Government of Singapore’s obligations under international law to protect, promote and fulfil human rights – instead allowing for the State to expand curtailment of civic freedoms to the detriment of its people.

    Signatories:

    Access Now
    Amnesty International
    ARTICLE 19
    ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights
    Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
    CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
    Digital Defenders Partnership
    Human Rights Watch
    International Commission of Jurists
    Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada
    Wikimedia Foundation

    Summary Legal Analysis

    International legal principles are clear that even as the protection of national security is a legitimate purpose for the restriction of certain rights, restrictions must be narrowly defined, strictly necessary and proportionate to this aim. The UN Human Rights Committee has clarified that this three-part test of legality, necessity and proportionality applies to freedom of expression. Limitations on this right must “conform to the strict tests of necessity and proportionality” and be “directly related to the specific need on which they are predicated”. Restrictions on the right to freedom of expression also negatively impact upon the rights to association and participation in public affairs as freedom of expression underpins the “free communication of information and ideas about public and political issues between citizens, candidates and elected representatives”. Meanwhile, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has noted that the three-part test also applies to the right to privacy in the digital age – noting that any interference with privacy must be “necessary and in proportion to” a legitimate aim, “be the least intrusive option available,” and “not render the essence of the right meaningless”.

    Overbroad and ambiguous provisions

    FICA’s overbroad and ambiguous provisions allow for abusive interpretation and implementation by the authorities, while failing to provide clarity to the public on what conduct would fall foul of the legislation. Its potential to encompass a wide range of conduct fails to ensure compliance with the principle of legality and confers overbroad discretion in interpretation and implementation upon those charged with enforcement of the law.

    FICA applies to “conduct” engaged on behalf of a “foreign principal” directed “towards a political end in Singapore”. (ss 4; 8) This includes “arrangements” with any “foreigner” or “non-Singapore registered entity” that can be “written or unwritten” to “influence or seek to influence” “public opinion” on matters of “public controversy” or “to promote or oppose political views, or public conduct relating to activities that have become the subject of a political debate”. (ss 4; 5; 8(f); 8(g))

    Criminal penalties apply where a person “undertakes electronic communications activity on behalf of a foreign principal” in a “covert” or other manner that “involves deception” which results in the publication in Singapore of “information or material” which “is likely to be prejudicial” to “public tranquillity” or “public order”; “likely to diminish public confidence in the Government” or is “likely to be directed towards a political end.” (ss 17-19)

    The expansive and vaguely worded definition of activities “directed towards a political end” encompasses a broad range of activities – including social justice advocacy, artistic commentary, academic research, social enterprise or journalistic reporting relating to a “political” issue – of civil society, academia, media, the arts and industry, amongst others. Individuals and organizations are therefore unable to accurately define what conduct can risk violating the law. Engagement “on behalf of a foreign principal”, for example, can also cover collaboration with foreign actors to conduct and share research; receive funding to hold events or implement projects; and cross-border training and education.

    Matters of “public controversy” and “political debate” can also overbroadly apply to pertinent issues of public interest on which individuals engage – potentially limiting their rights to freedom of expression, association and participation in public affairs. This risks impacting particularly on civil society engaging in research and advocacy – whose purpose is specifically to nurture and direct “political debate” on matters of public interest, including “controversy”, and to oversee and check powers of the executive. There is a risk that the authorities may bring within FICA’s remit civil society’s cross-border engagement and information-sharing, both of which are fundamental to policy and advocacy work, thereby negatively affecting collaboration among civil society actors in Singapore and organizations based outside the country, such as the organizations that are signatories to this statement.

    “Public tranquillity” and matters which “likely diminish public confidence in the Government”also allow for an overly broad interpretation to target critical commentary on government policy even in the absence of any legitimate reason to limit freedom of expression. “Covert” conduct includes “deliberately moving onto encrypted communication platforms” (p. 205), which can apply to the use of most modern electronic devices and be relied on to infer criminal intent from a broad range of potential communications – including through encrypted messaging and email services; and the use of online platforms through secure connection services, such as virtual private networks (VPNs).

    Unfettered executive discretion

    FICA allows for unfettered executive discretion to censure expression and association deemed impermissible by the State. In fact, it provides for wide potential for the authorities to encroach on the rights to free expression, association, participation in public affairs, and privacy, even in circumstances when such encroachment is not strictly necessary to achieve the purported aim of protecting national security.

    FICA allows authorities to designate individuals and entities as “politically significant” if their activities are “directed in part towards a political end” and if “it is in the public interest”. (ss 47, 48) This can result in any individual being potentially targeted under the law for expression or advocacy on issues relating to politics or public interest in Singapore. It can also apply to any individual currently working on these issues for a foreign organization or in collaboration with foreign actors – either through academic, civil society or other modes of arrangement.

    Designated “politically significant” individuals and entities can be ordered to “disclose foreign affiliations” and “arrangements” through reports to the authorities on their activities, even where they are “not directed towards a political end in Singapore”. (ss 76, 78) The authorities can also direct these “reportable arrangements” to end. (s 84) This can result in infringements of the rights to privacy and association of designated individuals working on issues of social concern in Singapore – particularly journalists, academics and researchers who may be required to reveal information and communications with foreign actors in contravention of professional ethics. Designated “politically significant” journalists and independent media outlets can also be issued a “transparency directive” – requiring them to disclose any “political matter with a foreign link” published in Singapore and identify the author’s name and nationality and any links to a “foreign principal”. (s 81)

    FICA also prohibits “politically significant” individuals and entities from accepting “donations” from “impermissible donors” who are not Singaporean individuals or companies (ss 55, 56); caps anonymous donations at S$5,000 a year (ss 57, 58); and bans foreigners from provision of “voluntary labour” to such individuals and entities. (ss 55, 56) These provisions risk being abused to muzzle social justice initiatives, civil society organizations and independent media outlets that rely on independent funding and potential support of individuals who are not Singaporeans to volunteer work or research time.

    Notably, FICA empowers the authorities to order any person to “provide any document or any information or material” on activities “directed towards a political end in Singapore” where it is deemed “necessary” for the exercise of powers under FICA. (s 108) This potentially violates the rights to privacy and association of any individual in connection with any individual or entity in relation to any matter under FICA – with a penalty of a fine of up to S$5,000 (approx. US$3,685) and continuing fines of up to S$500 (approx. US$368) for “every day or part of a day” of non-compliance. (s 108)

    Severe penalties

    Severe penalties can result in a chilling effect on the free exercise of the rights to expression, association, and participation in public affairs. Directions can be issued by the authorities under Part 3 of the law to “stop”, “disable” or “block access to” online content; and “restrict accounts or services” and “remove apps” for apparent violations. An online location which is deemed a “proscribed online location” by the Minister (s 24) on a Part 3 direction can then be prohibited from “soliciting or procuring” “any expenditure to operate”or for “services” provided for the platform. (s 39) Non-compliance with these restrictions amounts to a criminal offence, which is arrestable and non-bailable. Individuals can be slapped with severe criminal sanctions for alleged “clandestine foreign interference by electronic communications activity” – they can be fined up to S$100,000 (approx. US$74,000) and/or imprisoned for up to fourteen years. (ss 17 – 19)

    The UN Human Rights Committee has noted that criminal sanctions constitute severe interference with the right to freedom of expression and are disproportionate responses in all but the most egregious cases. These severe penalties are likely to exert a chilling effect on everyone, and particularly on journalists, political commentators, civil society members, academics and community researchers, who often publish information and opinions online.

    Lack of independent judicial oversight

    FICA does not provide for any independent oversight or remedial mechanism to address potential human rights violations. Appeals against Part 3 directions and Part 4 designations are provided for under the law – however, they are to first be made to the Minister in charge of issuing the order in the first place (ss 92, 93) and/or to a “Reviewing Tribunal” chaired by a Supreme Court Judge but consisting of three individuals closely linked to the government, “each of whom is appointed by the President on the advice of the Cabinet”. (s 94) The rules for such Tribunal’s proceedings are to, in turn, be determined by the Minister for Home Affairs. (s 99)

    Independent judicial review is severely limited as any appeal decision made by the Reviewing Tribunal, Minister or other authorities is “final” and “not to be challenged, appealed against, reviewed, quashed or called in question in any court” – except where the requested review of the Tribunal’s or Minister’s decision refers to procedural requirements, that will not analyze substantive questions relating to executive implementation of the law. (s 104) This limitation on the judiciary’s review powers undermines the rule of law, which requires judicial oversight as a check and balance against the executive’s exercise of discretionary power. Lack of oversight accentuates risks of violations perpetuated by severe penalties and the law’s stipulation that non-compliance with any order is an offence with penalties incurred from the time of alleged offending, regardless of any appeal.

    Civic space in Singapore is rated as "obstructed" by the CIVICUS Monitor

     

  • Singapore's Adoption of Universal Periodic Review on Human Rights

    Universal Periodic Review on Human Rights -- Outcome Adoption for Singapore

    Delivered byCornelius Hanung

    Thank you, Madame President.

    Singapore has fully accepted just four of the 21 recommendations on civic freedoms during this UPR cycle. It has done so on the basis that ‘the right to freedom of speech, expression and assembly is guaranteed under the Singapore Constitution’ and that ‘a balance must be struck between an individual’s freedom of speech and the need to preserve a harmonious society.’

    During its last UPR cycle, Singapore accepted eight recommendations on civic space. None were fully implemented; contrary to its claims of upholding the rights guaranteed in its Constitution, Singapore has persistently failed to address unwarranted restrictions to the freedoms of peaceful assembly and expression.

    The government has eroded freedom of peaceful assembly by its continuous deployment of the 2009 Public Order Act, which has been regularly used to harass and investigate activists and critics for organising peaceful gatherings, and even towards solo protests.

    The government has also continued to use restrictive laws to criminalise dissent. The 2017 Administration of Justice (Protection) Act, a vaguely-worded contempt of court law, has been used to prosecute human rights defenders for criticism of the courts, under the guise of protecting the judicial system. The authorities have also failed to reform laws restricting media freedom and introduced the 2019 Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act to harass the political opposition, activists, journalists and civil society. A Foreign Interference Countermeasures bill recently introduced by the government will potentially narrow civic space even further.

    Far from preserving a ‘harmonious society,’ these restrictions serve only to silence legitimate political dissent. We call on Singapore to engage constructively with the UPR process and international human rights mechanisms by implementing the recommendations it has accepted, to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and to establish a national human rights body, and we call on member states to hold Singapore to account to its commitments.

    We thank you.


    Civic space in Singapore is rated as Obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor  

     

     

  • UN to turn 75 in 2020: Commemoration events must include civil society

    The year 2020 will mark the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. This anniversary provides a much-needed opportunity to reflect on the direction of the UN and ensure it is built to address the global challenges of the 21st Century.

    Current plans for the commemoration of the anniversary do not properly include the participation of civil society. Concerns about the transparency and inclusiveness of the UN meetings and events to mark the anniversary (starting June 2020) have been expressed to the UN missions of Singapore and Iceland, who are responsible for facilitating this programme of meetings. See below for joint letter to the Permanent Representatives of Singapore and Iceland, which your organisation can also sign, by emailing jeffery.huffinesATcivicus.org with the name of your organisation the end of May.

    Learn more about the the opportunities to strengthen the UN by visiting UN2020.


    To:
    Permanent Representative of Singapore to the United Nations
    Permanent Representative of Iceland to the United Nations


    Dear Excellencies,

    REF. COMMEMORATION OF THE UN’S 75TH ANNIVERSARY IN 2020

    We write to you in your capacity as co-facilitators on preparations for the UN’s 75 anniversary to express our deep concern that nascent plans for the commemorative plenary are not suitably inclusive of civil society.

    The anniversary presents a vital opportunity to consider how the Organization must adapt to cope with the global threats facing humanity. As the President of the General Assembly said recently: “it is a chance to make the UN more effective, more transparent, more accountable and more relevant to ‘we the peoples.’”[1]

    We are, therefore, concerned that the zero draft resolution for the commemoration might not envision a meaningful enough role for civil society. It appears that civil society is not part of the intergovernmental preparatory work, from consultations on outcomes that may be adopted – and even from the commemorative event itself. This would represent a missed opportunity to ensure the inclusion of a diversity of voices in the plenary outcomes, especially those of the most marginalized, through civil society participation.

    Global civil society has been a committed and determined ally of the UN since its inception in 1945 – when delegations worked together with NGO representatives on the text of the Charter. Today, that partnership is even more important – as civil society supports delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals, and plays a key role in policy formulation, innovation and communication of progress to the broader public.

    Encouraged by your stated “deep commitment to an open, transparent and inclusive process”[2] – that reinforces the President of the General Assembly’s emphasis on “making the UN relevant to all people” – we call on you to champion the voices of “we the peoples”, and to ensure that meaningful participation from civil society is included at every step of the way towards the 75th anniversary of the UN.

    In this vein, we ask that you consider engaging civil society in the process you are leading, for example, through an informal hearing with civil society, by inviting civil society representatives to present at the next suitable meeting, or by organizing a civil society briefing.

    We thank you for your efforts to date, and we look forward to working with you to ensure that the 75th anniversary is a meaningful event with lasting impact.

    Yours sincerely,

    Association of World Citizens

    Afrihealth Optonet Association, Nigeria

    All Win Network Foundation

    Association 3 Hérissons

    Association for Farmers Rights Defense (AFRD)

    Association For Promotion Sustainable Development, India

    Association pour l'Integration et le Developpement Durable (AIDB), Burundi

    Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation

    Campaign for a UN Parliamentary Assembly

    Centre for Human Rights - Nis

    Centre for Human Rights and Climate Change Research

    Centre for Socio-Eco-Nomic Development (CSEND)

    Child Rights Information Network

    Citizens for Global Solutions

    CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation

    Commons Cluster of the UN NGO Major Group

    Council of Organizations of the UNA-USA

    Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), India

    Democracy Matters

    Democracy Without Borders

    Development Goals Global Watch (DGGW) Inc.

    Dr Uzo Adirieje Foundation' (DUZAFOUND), Nigeria

    Echoes of Women in Africa Initiative (ECOWA) Nigeria

    Elizka Relief Foundation

    Elmoustkbal for Media, Policy and Strategic Studies, Egypt.

    EPE (Ethical-Possibility-Enhancement) Movement

    Equality Bahamas

    Federation of Environmental and Ecological Diversity for Agricultural Revampment and Human Rights

    Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung New York Office

    Global Voice

    Green Hope Foundation

    Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi Public Trust (ITA) / Centre for Education and Consciousness

    International Federation of Business and Professional Women (IFBPW)

    Igarapé Institute

    Institute for Planetary Synthesis

    Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary - Loreto Generalate

    International Alliance of Women (IAW)

    International Network for Corporate Social Responsibility

    International Presentation Association

    Justice for All/BurmaTask Force

    Kenana Association for Sustainable Development and Women Empowerment, Egypt

    Kikandwa Environmental Association (KEA), Uganda

    KULU - Women and Development, Denmark

    Lanka Fundamental Rights Organization, Sri Lanka

    Mahila Dakshata Samiti, India

    National Campaign For Sustainable Development, Nepal

    National Coalition of Civil Society Organizations of Liberia (NSACCSOL)

    National Society of Conservationists - Friends of the Earth, Hungary

    Network of Rural Women Producers Trinidad and Tobago (NRWPTT)

    Nigeria Network of NGOs

    Noble Delta Women for Peace and Development

    Nonviolence International

    One World Trust

    Radanar Ayar Association, Myanmar

    Radha Paudel Foundation, Nepal

    Reaccion Climática- Bolivia

    RIPESS Intercontinental Network for the Promotion of Social Solidarity Economy

    Rural Area Development Programme (RADP), Nepal

    Servicios Ecuménicos para Reconciliación y Reconstrucción

    Shirley Ann Sullivan Educational Foundation

    Shishu Aangina

    Sisters of Charity Federation

    Society for Conservation & Sustainability of Energy & Environment in Nigeria (SOCSEEN)

    Society for International Development (SID)

    Soroptimist International

    Soroptimist International Great Britain & Ireland (SIGBI)

    Tamkeen Association for Rights of People with Disabilities, Egypt

    The Stimson Center (Just Security 2020 Program)

    Theatre of Transformation Academy

    Together First

    Transdiaspora Network

    U-Solve School of Empathic Leadership & Entrepreneurship (SELE)

    UN2020 Initiative

    United Nations Association – Suriname

    United Nations Association – UK

    Women Environmental Programme (WEP)

    Women for Water Partnership

    Workable World Trust

    World Citizens Association of Australia

    World Democratic Governance project Association - WDGpa

    World Federalist Movement – Institute for Global Policy


    1. President of the General Assembly statement, 8 April 2019
    2. Co-facilitators joint letter, 29 April 2019