Forum Casts Spotlight on Human Rights

September 19, 2014

(From left) Mr Faustenhammer, Ms Mathi, Prof Koh and Prof Woon examined the universality of human rights at the recent Tembusu Forum

The 12th Tembusu Forum titled “Are Human Rights Truly Universal?” brought to light issues on the interpretation and implementation of human rights, and the effectiveness of existing frameworks in encouraging nations to protect those rights. The Forum on 12 September, organised by Tembusu College, was attended by 250 students.

Members of the panel comprised NUS Faculty of Law David Marshall Professor Walter Woon, who is also Dean of the Singapore Institute of Legal Education; President of MARUAH (Working Group for an Association of South East Asian Nations [ASEAN] Human Rights Mechanism, Singapore) Ms Braema Mathi; and the European Union (EU) Delegation to Singapore’s Head of Political and Press and Information Section Mr Bernhard Faustenhammer. Tembusu Rector Professor Tommy Koh, who is Ambassador-at-Large at the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs, moderated the discussion.

Panel members and Prof Koh debated whether people should exert their rights at any cost, which many Western countries advocate, or whether they should balance it with the responsibility to the community they live in. Another thread linking several points made at the Forum was that even though many would agree with the principle behind the idea of human rights—rights that enable one to live his or her life in dignity, they might not agree with what constitutes a right.

“The problem with human rights is that they’re not black and white. The colour of human rights is not black and white. It’s grey, and that’s the problem, because we have to work out where does black turn to white and that’s terribly difficult,” said Prof Woon.

Mr Faustenhammer said he believed that universality was a core element of human rights. He, however, acknowledged that while this world view was not shared by everyone, it was gradually gaining acceptance in other parts of the world. The culture of human rights advocacy in Europe, the epicentre of the two World Wars, was borne out of persecution and an environment where philosophical thought emerged outside of religion. For this reason, he explained, the evolution of human rights in Europe looks very different from that of other regions of the world.


About 250 students attended the Forum

There are existing frameworks such as the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) and Article 7 of the ASEAN Charter that countries can use to implement human rights laws. Many countries, however, find it a challenge to translate these frameworks into concrete laws.

Firstly, there is no accepted central authority on human rights. Some might say that the UN Human Rights Council could play this role, but in Prof Woon’s opinion, the Council is not an accepted final arbiter and it has no mechanism to enforce the UNDHR. Secondly, the desire to uphold the population’s rights has to be weighed against domestic concerns, he added.

Mr Faustenhammer said the EU has an effective mechanism in place—the European Court of Human Rights in France, where individuals, groups or member states can seek redress for infringements against the European Convention on Human Rights.

Ms Mathi, whose advocacy work addresses issues within ASEAN, said governments need to put people’s rights as the main consideration in forming human rights laws in order for them to be effective.

The Tembusu Forum, spearheaded by Prof Koh, aims to raise awareness and engage undergraduates through bringing informed discussions about important global, regional and national issues with distinguished academics, policymakers, diplomats and intellectuals.



The Tembusu (Fagraea fragrans) is a large evergreen tree in the family Gentianaceae. It is native to Southeast Asia. Its trunk is dark brown, with deeply fissured bark, looking somewhat like a bittergourd. It grows in an irregular shape from 10 to 25m high. Its leaves are light green and oval in shape. Its yellowish flowers have a distinct fragrance and the fruits of the tree are bitter tasting red berries, which are eaten by birds and fruit bats.