Dr Vincent Wijeysingha was to speak at the Liberal International’s 57th Congress held in Manila, Philippines, last week. The theme of the Congress was Human Rights and Trade. He was scheduled to speak in a panel “Economic growth and human tights – mutually exclusive?” chaired by the Secretary-General of European Financial Stability Facility, Mr Kalin Anev.

Dr Wijeysingha was, however, not allowed to travel because he was informed by officials at the airport that his passport was due to expire within six months. The following is an excerpt of the text of his speech which is first reproduced on Singapore Democrats.

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Ladies and gentlemen, comrades:
I am sorry I have not been able to attend this Congress and to meet colleagues in fraternal parties. But my own party colleague, Jaslyn Go, is here and, I have no doubt, she is more than capable of making full use of our party’s presence here.

The question we are addressing today is as relevant as it was when the foundation of human rights was established in the Declaration in December 1948.

We would do well to recall, from this place, the first article of the Declaration: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

The idea of rights being inherent in individual conscious entities is an old one. As Feldman of Cambridge University says, proponents of the concept usually assert that everyone is endowed with certain entitlements merely by reason of being human.

As human beings, we draw from our common spiritual and philosophical heritage and we declare that by virtue of having consciousness, of being able to feel pain, of being moved to share in, and therefore alleviate, the sufferings of others, we enjoy certain rights and obligations.

The field of human rights has not been without contest. Recently, Charles Blattberg at Montreal University stated that rights talk, being abstract, is counterproductive since it demotivates people from upholding the values that rights are meant to assert.

There is some truth in this statement: In past struggles, proponents have argued that human rights do not entail reciprocal obligations. They have based their approach on strict reading of rights statements without engaging the concepts in their essence.

But our session today is looking at a more immediate question: whether upholding human rights is compatible with economic success. This question is still very relevant today and has become more so in the context of the spectacular economic growth of China amidst a very repressive socio-political regime under the Community Party.

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