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The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a unique State-driven mechanism and significant innovation under the auspices of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council (HRC) that emerged from the 2005 UN reform process. It is the only universal procedure that reviews the human rights situation in all 193 UN Member States and takes place once every four and a half years.

The Universal Periodic Review and the Human Rights Council were created through the UN General Assembly on 15 March 2006 by resolution 60/251[1]. The UPR is one of the key elements of the HRC which reminds States of their responsibility to fully respect and implement all human rights and fundamental freedoms. The ultimate aim of this mechanism is to improve the human rights situation in all countries and address human rights violations wherever they occur. It provides an opportunity for all States to declare what actions they have taken to improve human rights, to fulfill their human rights obligations, to overcome challenges to the enjoyment of human rights[2] and to share best human rights practices around the globe. Since the first UPR session was held at the UN Office in Geneva, Switzerland in April 2008, all UN Member States have been reviewed.

Singapore participated in the first cycle of the UPR on 6 May 2011 during which she submitted her first UPR National Report. In the latter document, no mention of LGBT equality or Section 377A of the Penal Code was made by the Singapore government even though civil society and LGBT advocacy groups such as People Like Us highlighted Singapore's poor gay rights record.

The second cycle of the UPR began in 2012. Fourteen UN member states were reviewed at each session of the UPR Working Group which was held thrice a year. Singapore’s second UPR was scheduled on 27 January 2016 during the 24th session of the UPR Working Group from 18-29 January 2016. This time, owing to continuing campaigning by civic society and LGBT activist groups like Pink Dot, Oogachaga and Sayoni, legal challenges against the constitutionality of Section 377A and the Article 12 Constitutional suit for equal protection of LGBT people in the workplace, together with heated public discussion on LGBT rights in Singapore, the Government redressed this deficiency and specifically mentioned the issue in its second National Report for the 2016 UPR.

The first Universal Periodic Review in 2011[edit]

Preparation[edit]

Civil society groups in Singapore submitted reports on her human rights track record ahead of the United Nations deadline on 1 November 2010[3],[4]. They were enthused because it was the first time that Singapore's human rights record were to come under scrutiny by the UN.

At least eight civil society groups in Singapore put forward their views on the country's human rights track record. They represented diverse organisations from migrant workers to womens' groups.

Collectively, the groups also submitted a joint proposal collated by MARUAH, the Singapore Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism[5]. Their message was that economic growth did not necessarily equate with quality of life.

"Economic growth, well-being do not automatically bring in happiness, justice or social equality. These issues have to be pushed for, fought for and brought into reality," said Alex Au, spokesperson for advocacy group People Like Us.

The groups pointed to issues like poor housing for migrant workers, the perceived discrimination of homosexuals under Section 377A of the Penal Code which criminalises sex between mutually consenting adult men, detention without trial under the Internal Security Act, and problems faced by disadvantaged groups like the disabled and elderly.


Braema Mathi, chairperson of MARUAH, said: "We have not talked about stuff from a rights-based perspective for so long. We have always talked about it from a welfare-based approach, from a goodwill-based approach.

"I think the language will change and the mindset will change and people will start thinking that 'actually I deserve it here. Things are not right. I've tried so hard, why isn't it coming? Something is not right with the policy, the implementation, etc.', rather than 'me always trying to do a patch-up job trying to cope with situations that are not working to my benefit'....So it's about re-framing."

Singapore submitted its report to the UN by February 2011 and presented its report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in May 2011. The report traced the country's history and set in context the environment in which Singapore operated in. The May 2011 meeting also involved a dialogue with member states.

At the end of it, a final outcome document was published, which listed recommendations that member states could take to improve their human rights situation. That document, though, was not legally binding but it formed the basis for future reviews.

As part of the process, civil society groups could attend the UN meeting in May 2011 to observe Singapore presenting its report. In September 2011, they could speak and make representations when the final outcome document was adopted by the United Nations.

Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it had consulted stakeholders, including some local civil society groups, adding that they were welcome to submit their own reports to the UN.

Civil society groups acknowledged that it would be a long-drawn process but they hoped that it would get Singaporeans thinking and help to improve the quality of life here.

"It's an opportunity for us to surface the problems migrant workers in Singapore are facing. It's not just a matter of statistics, because (even) if just one person is abused, it is good for us to act," said Bridget Lew, founder-president of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics.

"I hope that more civil society members will engage in the process, the space will open up and more people will talk and embrace that space...the more we engage we understand this concept, that it also comes with responsibilities," said Braema Mathi.

Submissions of the individual civil society groups were published online.

The next review process was scheduled to be carried out in four-and-a-half years' time.

The UPR proper in Geneva[edit]

On 6 May 2011, Singapore underwent its first-ever Universal Periodic Review by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. A second hearing was scheduled for September 2011. At the first hearing, only states had a right to question Singapore while civil societies could do so at the second hearing[6].

As noted by human rights lawyer George Hwang, Singapore's official national report to the United Nations Human Rights Council for the Universal Periodic Review did not mention Section 377A of the Penal Code that criminalises sexual relations between men[7].

There were a total of 19 submissions, five of these being joint submissions. The number of parties which submitted numbered 27. Of these, 17 were by Singaporean organisations and 11 by international NGOs, like Amnesty International. Of the submissions by Singaporean civil societies, only People Like Us and COSINGO referred to Section 377A and discrimination of LGBTQ rights. (COSINGO is the acronym for Coalition of Singapore NGOs, spearheaded by MARUAH.)

At the session on 6 May 2011, several countries including the UK, France and Canada amongst others queried Singapore's continuing criminalisation of male gay sex to which a Singapore delegate Sng Siew Ping, Director (International Relations), Ministry of Home Affairs, responded saying:[8]


"The issue of sexual orientation raised by France and UK, and in advance by Canada, Ireland and the Netherlands. My delegation is aware that sexual orientation is also a controversial issue in UN bodies including the present one.

"In Singapore, people are free to pursue their interests and lifestyles. Recognition and success is based on merit and not on factors such as sexual orientation. In the area of employment, the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices promotes and educates employers and the general public on fair and responsible employment practices. Our legislation also allows those who feel that they have been unfairly dismissed including on grounds of sexual orientation to appeal to the Minister for Manpower to be reinstated. Yet we recognise that much of Singapore society remains conservative social mores and mindset cannot be changed by legislation alone. In recent times we had robust parliamentary debates in Singapore on whether to decriminalise certain homosexual acts. On this let me assure the UK and clarify in particular that what is being criminalised is not gay Singaporeans but homosexual acts between men. Now an extensive public consultation was held and the matter was considered at the highest political levels, it was not taken lightly and in the end it was decided to leave things be. The Singapore police has not been proactively enforcing the provision and will continue to take this stance.

"To answer the delegate from Canada, no action is taken against consenting adult males who may have relations unless their conduct breaks other laws, for instance laws against indecent public behaviour or paedophilia. The reality is that LGBT people in Singapore do not have to hide their sexual orientation for fear of losing their jobs or for fear of prosecution by the state. They have a place in our society and are entitled to their private lives."

The second Universal Periodic Review in 2016[edit]

Preparation[edit]

The welfare of LGBT groups was mentioned in Singapore's international human rights report, after the Government conducted consultations with these groups for the first time[9].

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) consulted LGBT groups, including Pink Dot and Sayoni, and other civil society organisations in January 2015, ahead of its human rights report to be submitted to the United Nations the following year.

"In preparation for Singapore's 2nd Universal Periodic Review (UPR) before the United Nations Human Rights Council in January 2016, MFA conducted outreach to interested civil society organisations to get their feedback, including LGBT groups," the ministry said, adding that the contents of its national report for the review were still being prepared and not yet finalised.

Pink Dot spokesman Paerin Choa said it was the first time the LGBT group has been consulted, and that it "is a very significant development as it has given the LGBT community in Singapore an opportunity to be heard in the international community".

Braema Mathi, president of human rights group MARUAH, said the move was a sign that the Government was recognising LGBT communities.

However, National University of Singapore political scientist Bilveer Singh was less hopeful.

"I don't think it is a game-changer when the groups are consulted. (It's) just that the Government agrees such groups exist and it is good to hear their views," he said.

"But what eventually happens remains to be seen. I doubt there will be many policy changes though."

LGBT groups also planned to submit their own reports for the UPR to the UN.

Queer women's group Sayoni prepared one with the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), migrant rights group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), and civil society organisations Function 8 and Think Centre.

Pink Dot intended to prepare one with LGBT counselling group Oogachaga.

The groups said they were planning to bring up issues such as the Penal Code's Section 377A, which criminalises sex between men - a rule recently upheld by the Supreme Court - workplace discrimination against the LGBT community and censorship of the media.

In December 2015, five civil society groups said they were headed to Geneva, Switzerland the following month, to address representatives of United Nations member states and make recommendations on human rights issues in Singapore[10].

They would focus on such issues as migrant worker rights, gender equality, income inequality, the death penalty and LGBT rights.

Also up for review in January 2016 were Belgium, Denmark, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Paraguay, Sierra Leone and Somalia.

Activists from countries up for review, like Singapore, were invited to lobby the permanent missions of UN members in Geneva one month before the UPR session.

A Singapore Government delegation would present a national report on human rights ahead of the 27 January 2016 UPR session on Singapore.

Civil society organisations headed to Geneva in January 2016 included LGBT group Sayoni, migrant worker advocates HOME, anti-death penalty group Second Chances and human rights advocates MARUAH. Oogachaga's representative, Bryan Choong, would only be there earlier, in December 2015, to meet with and lobby foreign missions.

Sayoni, Second Chances and HOME were also representing a coalition of 10 local NGOs that included AWARE and Think Centre.

Singapore's first UPR in 2011 saw only two activist groups - MARUAH and Think Centre - in Geneva. Then, Singapore received 143 recommendations from countries including France, Oman, the Czech Republic and Indonesia.

MARUAH president Braema Mathi, who would be travelling to Geneva, said she found her 2011 experience useful, and credited the UPR for Singapore eventually ratifying UN conventions on human trafficking and disabilities since then.

"The system in itself is a good system of getting more and more countries to become more accountable on how they are maintaining and enhancing human rights in their own countries," she said. For the 2016 UPR, she planned to focus on civil and political rights and the electoral system.

The civil society groups spent about $3,000 each to send a representative to Geneva who had five to eight minutes to give their views to UN delegations at what are called UPR pre-session meetings.

Oogachaga did not have a speaking slot but would set up meetings to lobby UN members on recommendations in their joint report with Pink Dot: Employment protection for LGBT persons, bullying and harassment in schools, legal recognition of LGBT groups, and access to healthcare and social services.

"Through these meetings, we hope that more recommendations on LGBT human rights issues could be made during the UPR session in January," said Oogachaga consultant Bryan Choong.

In June 2015, civil society organisations submitted their group or individual reports to the UN. They were also consulted in January 2015 by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), which was preparing Singapore's national report.

The UPR would be based on Singapore's National Report, together with civil society reports and a UN report on Singapore's commitments and engagement with UN human rights mechanisms.

S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies political scientist Alan Chong said some of these NGOs saw their participation as a way to shape Singapore's human rights standards in line with international norms, and "a way to hurry or pressure government policies towards certain directions".

Government's position in final UPR National Report[edit]

The Singapore Government submitted its 23-page UPR National Report in October 2015[11] and released it to the media on Friday, 11 December 2011[12]. The full report, which is available on theMinistry of Foreign Affairs website[13],[14], covered a wide range of issues including social safety nets, the rights of persons with disabilities, migrant worker protection and civil and political rights.

The Government explained its approach and progress on human rights saying that Singapore took a pragmatic and non-ideological approach to human rights, even as she is fully committed to protecting the human rights of Singaporeans. Her way of promoting human rights is to build a fair and inclusive society, by enhancing social protection and preserving social harmony.

"Human rights exist in specific cultural, social, economic and historical contexts. In every country, accommodation must be reached among the competing rights of the individuals who make up the nation and the interests of society as a whole," said the report.

Stability, security and social harmony are key prerequisites for economic growth, which enables the Government to care for and protect Singaporeans, it added.

"We therefore firmly apply the rule of law to ensure stability, equality and social justice, which are the necessary conditions for respecting the fundamental human rights enshrined in our Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

In an update of its progress since the last UPR, the report noted that Singapore had recently signed onto three international conventions:

in addition to being party to other core human rights instruments of the UN, namely the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which she signed earlier.

As part of the UPR process, a three-hour dialogue between Singapore and other UN members would be held on 27 January 2016 in Geneva, Switzerland. Singapore's delegation would be led by Ambassador-at-Large, Dr. Chan Heng Chee, and include representatives from several ministries. It would present the National Report and engage in a dialogue with the UPR Working Group, made up of 47 Elected Members, as well as Observer States of the HRC. In this peer review system, all parties would be allowed to give recommendations following the presentation. Singapore's response to these recommendations would be circulated to all States 48 hours after the UPR.

Dr. Chan said, "The realisation of human rights is a work-in-progress for all states. Singapore will continue to review and adapt our approach based on the changing attitudes and needs of our society." However, she cautioned that, "The UPR is not an occasion for the international community to sit in judgment of one of its members. It is a conversation among peers."

LGBT rights[edit]

A new issue that emerged in the Government's second UPR National Report was the rights of LGBT people which Singapore did not raise in the first report in 2011. The Government reiterated its stance that Section 377A of the Penal Code which criminalises male gay sex was retained, but not proactively enforced. It added that this approach sought to accommodate the sensitivities of different communities so all can exist harmoniously together, and took into account the evolving social and cultural context of the country.


The section dealing with LGBT rights[15] is reproduced here:

"LGBT Community

111. The retention of section 377A of the Penal Code was thoroughly and passionately debated in Parliament in 2007. In 2013, two legal applications were made to challenge the constitutionality of section 377A and the Court of Appeal upheld its constitutionality in both cases. This is a sensitive issue in multi-religious Singapore and the decision to retain section 377A of the Penal Code was a carefully considered and finely balanced decision taken by Parliament. Segments of Singapore society continue to hold strong views against homosexuality for various reasons including religious convictions and moral values. Petitions to repeal section 377A were often met with counter-petitions.

112. While section 377A is retained, the Government does not proactively enforce it. All Singapore citizens, regardless of their sexual orientation, are free to lead their lives and pursue their activities in their private space without fear of violence or personal insecurity. Members of the LGBT community are also not discriminated against in schools or the workplace. The Government does not discriminate against persons seeking a job in the civil service on the basis of their sexual orientation.

113. We believe that each country should be allowed to deal with such sensitive issues in its own way, taking into account its evolving social and cultural context. Our approach seeks to accommodate the sensitivities of different communities so that there is room for all to exist harmoniously together. We believe this to be a pragmatic and reasonable compromise in the current circumstances."

A group of 10 civil society organisations also submitted to the UPR its recommendations to improve Singapore’s human-rights record in 11 areas[16]. The group called itself the Alliance of Like-Minded Civil Society Organisations in Singapore (ALMOS)[17] and included AWARE, HOME and The Online Citizen.

Among the things ALMOS called for was the repeal of Section 377A, a review of the practice of deporting and blacklisting pregnant foreign domestic workers, and a review of all laws that potentially restricted freedom of expression.

Statement and campaign by Sayoni[edit]

During the UPR Pre-Session in Geneva on 16 December 2015, Jean Chong delivered Sayoni's statement on behalf of the LGBTQ communities in Singapore.

It addressed:

  • Criminalisation of consensual sex between men under Section 377A of the Penal Code in Singapore
  • The right to freedom of expression - Media censorship, disallowing neutral or positive portrayal of LGBTQ persons
  • The right to freedom of association - To allow legal registration of LGBTIQ organisations with the authorities as a Society or Non-Profit Organisation
  • The right to family life for LGBTQ persons
  • Rights of Transgender people
  • Workplace discrimination

The entire statement may be read on Sayoni's website:[18].

As a follow-up to their work at the UPR Pre-Session, Sayoni, in partnership with Destination: INK and supported by the ASEAN Sogie Caucus, ALMOS and Artistry, organised a spoken word competition entitled, "Human Writes: a spoken word competition" which lasted from 31 January to June 2016 to raise awareness of the Universal Periodic Review[19]. Contestants were presented with a new theme related to human rights every month to which they could respond. Winners and runner-ups got to compete in the grand finalé to win $500.


Joint report by Pink Dot and Oogachaga[edit]

In preparation for Singapore's UPR session on 27 January 2016. Pink Dot SG and Oogachaga Counselling and Support submitted a joint report about LGBT issues to the United Nations' Office of the High Commission for Human Rights.

A simplified version of the report to facilitate education of the LGBT and mainstream communities regarding these issues was published and may be read here:[20],[21].

Towards the end of January 2016, the two organisations released a series of 6 comic strips to highlight some of the key concerns raised in the joint report.

  • Part 1: Legal registration of LGBT organisations

The Registrar of Societies refuses registration of LGBT organisations, apparently because it is “contrary to the national interest” to do so. We recommend the Government should allow legal registration of LGBT organisations by ROS.


  • Part 2: LGBT persons are subjected to harmful reparative therapy

LGBT youth in Singapore are exposed to Reparative Therapy in order to change their sexual orientation and/ or gender identity. Internationally, these practices are denounced as harmful and unethical. We recommend the Government outlaw all such clinical practices.


  • Part 3: When school counsellors are not trained on LGBT issues

LGBT students lack access to professionals who can provide accurate LGBT sexuality and sexual health education. We recommend the Government should implement comprehensive and LGBT-inclusive curriculum in schools.


  • Part 4: Transphobic bullying in school

Educators and professionals in mainstream education are not empowered to handle homophobic and transphobic bullying. We recommend the Government set up a taskforce to look into the issue of LGBT bullying and the well-being of its LGBT students and staff.


  • Part 5: Lack of protection for LGBT people

You could be fired from your job, denied a promotion, bullied or blackmailed for being LGBT, and there’s no employment protection. We recommend the Government should include "sexual orientation and gender identity" in the employment laws.


  • Part 6: Censorship of LGBT information

Mainstream media guidelines prohibit broadcast of music or programmes that positively portray homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexualism and transsexualism. We recommend the Government should remove these discriminatory guidelines in order to provide accurate representation of LGBT persons.


See also[edit]

References[edit]

  • Imelda Saad, "Singapore's human rights under UN scrutiny", Channel News Asia, 31 October 2010[22].
  • Cassandra Chew, "Human rights wishlist", The Straits Times, 31 October 2010[23].
  • George Hwang, "Will Singapore’s equal rights record withstand United Nations examination?", Fridae, 29 April 2011[24].
  • Sylvia Tan, "Singapore UN delegate: "What is being criminalised is not gay Singaporeans but homosexual acts"", Fridae, 11 May 2011[25].
  • Steve Mort, "UN panel praises Singapore for progress made in human rights", Channel News Asia, 7 May 2011[26].
  • Kok Xing Hui, "LGBT groups consulted for report", The Straits Times, 17 June 2015[27].
  • Rik Glauert, "LGBT groups in Singapore consulted for human rights report", Fridae, 19 June 2015[28].
  • Kok Xing Hui, "Five activist groups to share views on rights at UN review", The Straits Times, 11 December 2015[29].
  • Charissa Yong, "Singapore's approach to human rights 'pragmatic', says Govt in report to the United Nations", The Straits Times, 11 December 2015[30].
  • Olivia Quay, "Singapore to put forth pragmatic human rights approach at Universal Periodic Review", Channel News Asia, 11 December 2015[31].
  • "Decision to retain Section 377A ‘carefully considered, balanced’", TODAY, 11 December 2015[32].
  • Alliance of Like-Minded CSOs in Singapore, Facebook page[33] and media statement on the UPR[34].

Acknowledgements[edit]

This article was written by Roy Tan.