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To Bangkok Conference programme

65th IFLA Council and General

Bangkok, Thailand,
August 20 - August 28, 1999

Code Number: 145-93-E
Division Number: -
Professional Group: Guest Lecture I
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 93
Simultaneous Interpretation:   Yes

Right to life, intellectual freedom and the need for a deep dialogue between East and West

Basil Fernando
Asian Human Rights Commission
Kowloon, Hong Kong


Intellectual freedom is a universal human right, a civil liberty according to which all should be free to seek the truth about anything and to pass it on to others. This right makes it incumbent upon authorities not to penalize, dismiss or harass academics for pursuing the truth or to penalize students involved in the process of critical inquiry. On the contrary, these authorities should supply conditions conducive to full freedom of teaching, research and study. (1) At the very beginning I wish point out that I am using the word 'Academic Work' to include every form of search for knowledge not only in Universities but also in other groups and organizations such for example as human rights groups who do research on human rights problems and issues. I also use the term knowledge to mean not only book knowledge but also the knowledge of the "living word" in the sense N.F.S Grundtvig used that phrase. Grundtvig, a 19th Century Danish thinker and the founder of the Folk School movement, believed in the primacy of the spoken word and the need of the written word to be brought back to life by the spoken word; Hence the need for an on-going dialogue between the ordinary people and the scholars (2). Thus freedom for all inquiries, writing and speech, publication of all sorts including speech, print, and modern forms of communications including broadcast and the Internet are part of intellectual freedoms. Within meaning of libraries I include web-sites, video and audio libraries and other places and facilities providing protection and access to information.

I believe that academic freedom is covered under following human rights declared under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Right to life (Article 3); Right to freedom of thought and conscience (Article 18); Right to freedom of expression (Article 19); Right to choose of government of one's choice (Article 21), Due process rights (Articles 9-11); Right to Education (Article 26); Economic, social and cultural rights (Article 21). These are more fully explained under the covenants on civil and political rights and the economic, social and cultural rights. In fact the whole approach to human rights have been thoroughly transformed in recent times beginning with the work of Dr. Theo Van Boven, Director of the United Nations Division of Human Rights in Geneva (1977-1982).(3) In Asia these changes have been assimilated through many efforts among which the work of the Indian Supreme Court in interpreting right to life remains a very unique contribution. This contribution has been incorporated to the Asian Human Rights Charter - A Peoples Charter (4) - declared in Kwangju, south Korea in May 1998, in following words: "Foremost among rights is the right to life, from which flow other rights and freedoms. The right to life is not confined to mere physical or animal existence but includes the right to every limb or faculty through which life is enjoyed. It signifies the right to live with basic human dignity." In fact all rights declared under various UN human rights instruments are based on the premise that human beings aspire for happiness. All philosophies, throughout the ages, in the East and the West affirm this same principle. What little happiness there will be in the world if the spirit of inquiry is negated and the search for knowledge is suppressed? The stuff of the human honey lies in the inquiring sprit of human beings.

A part of the reason for general lack of interest in promoting intellectual freedom, I believe, lies in the misconception that this is a right that applies only to a few people, that is those who are associated with universities. However, this is a right that affects everyone in every aspect of life, be it health, gender relationships, political life, and every aspect of economic and social life. Creating the awareness that intellectual freedom is at the heart of every human activity, is a very important part in preparing the minds of more people to defend it.

In many countries there are hard attitudes created by practices sustained for a long time that intellectual life is just a bother and must be confined to the area called "science." That word is interpreted narrowly to mean some medical experiments and few other pursuits of similar kind only. A lawyer who tries to point to the limits of the basic legal frame work and jurisprudence may be considered a bother in a court of law with a positivist approach to law and thus very fundamental issues affecting human rights and democracy may be ignored. Similarly, a researcher challenging the long-term impact of some economic or social policy may be equally considered an unnecessary bother. A priest challenging the theological notions that leads to human rights violations may be considered a traitor to his religion. The people challenging the basis of sexual taboos of a society may equally be punished. Anyone who examines the status systems of a given society may be made to disappear or be made to suffer otherwise, not without the tacit consent of a quite lot of members of the given society.

Thus the ultimate foundation of violence is the suppression of intellectual life. This fact is often ignored even by many involved in conflict resolution activities. When proposals for quick solutions may not bear the close scrutiny, the tendency is to push such solutions anyway and thus for that purpose suppress or discourage deeper research. With the hitherto unthinkable technological advances that make quick actions possible, such actions can bring about great disasters if not accompanied by genuine research and expression of opinions based on such knowledge. A quick action to suppress protests can lead to quick development of civil wars. This applies to government actions. It also applies to protest groups as they decide on armed insurrections. If the actions are ill considered a disaster greater than the original problem emerges. Thus, research is an obligation that the human beings owed to each other in their mutual search for happiness.

It is the people, the ordinary people who can guarantee the respect for intellectual life. They will do so if they understand the value this has, on their daily lives and when they realize that they themselves are partners of the intellectual community. This is why work of persons like N.F.S. Grundtvig whose contribution to Denmark's intellectual tradition is enormous and of B.R. Ambedkar of India, who was the originator of the movement of Untouchables (Dalits) need to be studied closely. There are many others who have contributed by way of similar activities.

One of the greatest barriers for development of strong intellectual traditions in Asia has been the cold war. The ideological factors created deep skepticism on research activities and propaganda took the place of informed debates. The attempt to deepen the understanding of problems was given way to ideological absolutes. Many decades of intellectual sterility were the result. The State, which has a natural tendency and a technological capacity for propaganda, cannot be effectively countered except by way of informed opinions of the people. This is particularly true in ethnic warfare. Crude generalizations intended to increase appetite for violence create a maddening cycle of violence. It is only the genuine information that can generate the responses necessary for genuine solutions.

Beside cold war and ethnicity related propaganda there are other ideologies purposed by some regimes. One such ideology is the rule by a core group. This is the ideological position in Singapore. A core group spread through every area of life are supposed to make all the decisions and the people have no place in the decision making process. In this situation only information the people are made to feel they need is about what the government decisions are. Research then is a function of the government and every private initiative is considered a dangerous thing. There is plenty of access to information into what is considered harmless areas such as business, commerce and technology. On social and political matters there is nothing except the government propaganda. To ask any information on forbidden areas or volunteering to give such information, as one person tried to do during a lunchtime break, (5) can lead to police action and a jail term. The international community has not so far come up with any serious attempt at exposing this situation. Political concepts similar to hardcore concept exist under military regimes for example, Burmese regime and socialist regimes. The political suppression by the Burmese regime is very much linked with the suppressions of every form of intellectual activity but this aspect has received very little attention. Burma demonstrates when the light of the intellectual life is dimmed, how a whole nation becomes dark not only for the present but also for many years to come. Like the paddy fields that need water, a nation need a rich intellectual life. The lasting negative impact of Pol Pot regime in Cambodia is the destruction of all sources of intellectual life, the learned Sanga. (monks), the intellectuals, students, the universities and the schools. The battle against Khmer Rouge will not be complete without recreating the intellectual fountains of life in Cambodia; rebuilding of the universities, academies and libraries, revitalization of schools, and the training of the teachers are basic needs. Unfortunately international response to such needs remains rather poor.

In Asia there had been strong status-based societies. The tradition of freedom of expression and access to information has usually been denied to all except those belonging to the highest ranks. Most draconian of these systems has been the caste system, which began in India and then spread to other South Asian Countries. The international community has very little idea of the depth of oppression involved in the practice of caste. It involves total denial of rights and denial of human status to persons who are called Dalits in India and low castes in other South Asian countries. About one third of Indian society (over 230 million) belongs to this category. The impact of caste on culture needs to be looked at closely. Indian caste system (6) limited the freedom of speech to a small minority. The written word was under the sole ownership of one particular caste and was denied even to women of that caste. The division thus created is deep, as people who are denied the right of speech in public life are not only rejects of that society but also they consider themselves as those who do not belong that society. They are not just "nobodies;" they are outcasts who have no nation. The result is that a nation where caste exists, is no nation at all, as there is not only a lack of a minimum bond among the people, but also a positive rejection of one caste by the other. What exist in such situations is not mere discrimination, but also theoretical denial of the common humanity of every one and the denial of the notion of equality. Almost every country is South Asia is suffering from this problem. Intellectual freedom within each country suffers from this situation. Deeper social problems are kept out of scrutiny, as they are too painful and have the potential of shattering the deepest prejudices commonly held as sacred notions of a particular society. Thus, in these countries the intellectual freedoms will invariably create some tensions. Deep rifts also are bound to rise between intellectuals who fear close scrutiny of their culture and the new generations of intellectuals who comes from "the bottom" and have a taste of the other-side of their cultures. In these circumstances the opposition to intellectual freedom comes from the traditional intellectuals themselves. In fact pseudo-intellectualism of the earlier generations of intellectuals in these countries created the most solid barrier against the genuinely creative use of intellectual freedoms. This same problem exists in professional spheres such as medicine and law. Many a citadel must fall before the intellectual life can flourish and provide the living waters for sustenance of peoples of these nations.

Another type of status based society was the Thai society during the last 700 years up to 1932, when a system known as Sakdina system (7) prevailed. Under this system, every one was assigned a Na, a value and rights and duties depended on the socially assigned value of persons. Systems similar to this existed in Korea till the Korean War. Status-based systems also existed in many other countries in Asia.

During this century these status systems have been legally abolished and their legal impact have diminished in varying degrees. However, the social impact of practices that have lasted for milleniums or long centuries still remains. The most visible effect is the lack of tradition of accountability and tremendous hostility with which all forms of criticism is regarded.

The result is that relatively high degree violence is used against even milder form of social criticism coming from the "lower" status groups and this sometimes lead to violent reactions from the victims' side.

Another type of obstacle is the lack of traditions of keeping written records. In some places little seriousness is attached to the practice of keeping records. As a result, even the keeping of basic criminal records have been suspended in many places. Sri Lankan emergency regulations and security laws are an example of eliminating legal obligations for maintaining and protecting records. Record keeping is a very fundamental way of affirming equality and of bringing every one under the law. In the past the privileged groups have protected themselves by not maintaining or by destroying records.

Having mentioned the formidable obstacles to intellectual freedom in Asia, let us also look at some positive achievements. In many countries numbers of people who participate in the intellectual life have increased in vast numbers during this century. The spread of education including the university education has greatly contributed to this situation. The association of higher education with higher social status has diminished a lot. With the entrance of grassroots people into intellectual forums there is now the possibility of understanding the local problems in much a greater depth. Vast changes in the media -- newspapers, radio, television and now the Internet -- continuously contribute to the expansion of the participants of the intellectual freedom. It is unfortunate to note that the resistance to the expansion of intellectual freedoms is often initiated by one section of the intellectuals themselves. This is either due to reasons of prestige, of wanting to keep to a small circle of the illuminated, or due to unfair professional practices of wanting to prevent newcomers to the profession. These internal problems within the intellectual community have prevented an emergence of solidarity, which is much needed to protect the intellectual freedoms from the State interference.

Libraries in Asia have contributed greatly to the expansion of education in Asia. The rural folk in particular have benefited from this expansion. It can be said, that libraries and liberties go hand in hand. There had been some unfortunate instances of burning of libraries. In Cambodia under Pol Pot there was a complete destruction. The burning of the Jaffna library, in Sri Lanka, under the initiative of the then ruling government party, the United National Party was a barbaric act. In other places there have been instances of one religious group burning the books of others. However, it can without exaggeration be said, that Asian people love libraries and may I add also the librarians!

Yet another hopeful aspect is the enlargement of the meaning of freedom of expression and access to information, through new laws and by way of judicial interpretation of fundamental rights and freedoms. Of particular interest are the laws relating to access to information. Thailand provides a good example of a law, which has expanded the possibilities in this area. Many countries are discussing such laws. The intellectual community can contribute a lot by promoting such discussions. Some are already doing this. The Vigil Lanka Movement in Sri Lanka has provided a critique of the proposed Access to Information Bill in Sri Lanka and has pointed out that the provisions of the bill are a step backward. Other groups have pointed out that another act, which introduces some amendments to the Universities Act, are infringements of fundamental rights. In a case filed by several academics before the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, the Court held that several provisions of the proposed amendments violate the country's Constitution. One such provision is to introduce two members of parliament to the University Council. The court held that this might have the effect of intimidating other the members of the council.

In the context of Asia judiciary can, and some times they do, play a major role in expanding the scope of human rights in general and intellectual freedom in particular. Intellectuals can play a vital role in helping to expand the scope of rights by taking active part in promoting judicial activism. Several intellectuals in India have contributed to this process in their country.

In previous guest lectures the need for promoting and supporting human rights activists from the third world countries have been discussed. I wish to add to this view the following: We today need a deep dialogue between those who care for democracy and human rights in the East and the West, in the Third World countries and the First. There is a solid block between some intellectuals of East and West, who promote semi-authoritarian rule in third world countries. Under the pretext of "Asian Values" an argument has been made to the effect that Third Word countries do not need democracy. What they need, we are told, is good governance, implying (1) political stability; (2) sound bureaucracy based on meritocracy; (3) economic growth with equity; (4) fiscal prudence, and (5) relative lack of corruption (8). These are counter-posed against democracy, which is seen as something harmful and therefore to be avoided. This is done under the pretext, that economic development can be achieved only in this way. Thus, this political doctrine sees intellectual freedoms in third world countries as an obstacle to development. A very few voices have emerged from the West against this view. Is it that there is a deep dialogue against intellectual freedoms between some groups in the East and some from the West? This is a question that those who care for intellectual freedoms, particularly in the West must ask themselves. The friends of intellectual freedom in the West can reduce the level of violation of intellectual freedom in the East. May I use this forum to call upon everyone for a deep dialogue on democracy and human rights in general and intellectual freedom in particular. Such a dialogue is a dream worth pursuing and a cause that will contribute to the defense of right to life in this planet.


  1. ademic Freedom-Volume 2- a human rights report published by World University Service-1993
  2. Fernando, Basil, Demoralization and Hope, a research paper to be published soon.
  3. Van Boven, Theo, People Matter, Meulenhoff, Amsterdam,1982
  4. Asian Human Rights Charter- A Peoples Charter, Asian Human Rights Commission, 1998
  5. The reference here is to Dr. Chee Soon Juan of Singapore who was arrested and charged for making a speech during the lunch hour without taking permission.
  6. Ambedkar, B. R. - Annihilation of Caste - see. www.hrschool.org
  7. Thamthai, Mark, Human Rights SOLIDARITY, July 1999 issue, Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong
  8. Mahabuhani, Kishore, Can Asians Think?, Times Book International. Despite the explosive title, the book merely propagates Lee Kuan Yew dogmas. The utter collapse of Indonesia's authoritarian regime and the political crisis of Malaysia and the spiritual crisis of Singapore itself, have exposed the authoritarian views which are presented as principles of Good Governance.


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