Monday, January 31, 2011

When being independent isn’t enough

This was first published in The Malaysian Insider on 31 January 2011.

When I was a child, my Father would play his favourite game with me. It was a game that I would call Lets-test-whether-my-daughter-loves-me-enough-to-forgive-me game.

He would ask me this: “Say that I’ve committed a crime. You’re the presiding Judge. Would you hand me a guilty verdict?”

Yes.” That would be my answer, all said without a pause in between.

I didn’t even think about asking him what sort of hypothetical crime he could have committed and what would have motivated him to break the law. My logic was simple and straightforward then. (Note: grey was certainly not in my colour dictionary at that time.) I thought if a person commits a crime, he/she must be judged guilty and be sent to jail immediately.

In my juvenile mind, I didn’t consider whether there could be possible mitigating factors which could influence my judgment and subsequently lead to exonerating my Father’s crime.

My monosyllabic answer did not thrill my Father one bit. He would often argued in exasperation.

But I’m your Father! You won’t even use your position to help me out?” “Sure? No question about it?” “But I gave you life and I feed you! How could you?”

He tried to use the my-blood-runs-through-your-veins’ card but sadly to no avail. I was that stubborn.

Despite my predictable and solid answer, he continued to play this game with me throughout most of my childhood years until one fine day he decided to stop. I never knew why but I am making a mental note to ask him when I see him next.

Sometimes I wish I had studied psychology so that I could analyse my relationship with my Father but most importantly how much of my character and personality as a child has reflected on my moral integrity and principles as an adult.

As an adult, I often find myself confronted by issues that pose as ethical and moral conundrums; should I tell my friend that her husband is cheating on her? Should I accept a gift even if I don’t deserve it? Should I euthanise my critically ill pet? Should I buy this pirated DVD even though I know it’s illegal? Should I hire a less competent person just because he/she would need the income more than the one who is really competent?

Thankfully, I’ve cultivated an appetite to ask questions and find the answers to help me judge. Granted, I don’t always make the right judgment but it forces me to first ask myself whether I would be more ready to accept stealing if I were starving and penniless before passing a guilty verdict.

There is one question which often sparks a great deal of debate amongst the NGO circle. Would you consider it ethical to accept funding from political parties or big corporations that may be violating free and fair trade agreement, environmental, health or human rights policies?

A few years back when I was living in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian Red Cross (CRC) launched a huge fund-raising event in conjunction with World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day. It managed to collect a staggering US$4 million from various local and foreign private companies and various other undisclosed sources. It was no surprise seeing that the CRC President is an influential person and hence was able to use her status to garner strong support from the business community.

It’s not a secret either that the CRC President is the wife of Hun Sen, the Prime Minister of Cambodia.

During the World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day; amidst thousands of people, including members of the press and other high profile representatives from international aid organisations, the Prime Minister handed over a mock cheque of US$4 million to the President of the CRC.

This gesture, which was regarded as a formality by many Cambodians was highly criticised by certain international community. The matrimonial connection between the President of CRC and the Prime Minister has always been a point of contention for those who understand the concept of independence within the Movement. Nevertheless, Hun Sen and his wife appeared prudent enough to keep a distance from each other in public for most of the time.

All recognised national Red Cross/Red Crescent societies must subscribe to the seven fundamental principles (humanity, universality, unity, independence, neutrality, impartiality and voluntary service) of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. While playing an auxiliary role to the State, they are expected to maintain independence at all time.

In many countries, including developed ones, many governments are known to provide funds to their national Red Cross/Red Crescent societies and this is not against the Movement’s constitution. However, it’s imperative that they maintain independence by staying away from government influence when making decisions and executing their duties and responsibilities.

I think the CRC’s independence is challenged for two strong reasons; the intimate relationship between the two main personalities and the lack of faith in a corrupted government led by Hun Sen. Cambodia’s poor human rights record, weak rule of law and continuous violation of a free and fair election process have drawn multiple question marks on the Prime Minister’s credibility.

The fact that the CRC’s President “shares the same bed” with the Prime Minister has caused great discomfort to foreign stakeholders and guardians of the Movement. To be fair, the CRC’s President tries hard to exclude the participation of the Prime Minister in many CRC events just to avoid such criticism. But is that enough?

My Father’s little game would not have happened in real life. My close relation with him would have automatically disqualified me from presiding over his case. Not only must justice be done but must also seen to be done. I could be as impartial as possible but my personal relationship with my Father would always cast a doubt in the public’s eyes.

So, what’s my stand on this issue?

First of all, CRC is not a judiciary but a humanitarian institution. Its main duty is to provide humanitarian aid for those in need. When facing a dilemma such as this (particularly when it’s difficult to change or challenge a sovereign institution so entrenched in its tradition and culture), it’s always helpful to go back to the main foundation and objectives of the institution.

In this case, it’s clear that at the end of the day, the Movement’s duty lies in the interest of the people. The international community needs to weigh this delicate matter carefully before making a judgment in condemning the institution’s independence which can potentially harm its diplomatic relationship and hence jeopardise its core mandate.

I read a commentary made by Jean Pictet, former Director-General of the ICRC, on the Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross. He wrote:

“It is clear indeed that the Red Cross Society in a country under an authoritarian regime cannot serve as a centre for opposition to the regime or to any party or faith. It can thus display an attitude of benevolent neutrality towards temporal or spiritual authorities, maintain good relations with them and co-operate with them in humanitarian activities, since the National Societies are called upon to serve as auxiliaries to governmental institutions.”

Neutrality also is the attitude observed by the ICRC in its relations with governmental entities, treating them on the basis of equality, not expressing itself on their legitimacy, not considering whether they are recognised, not judging their politics. If it acts in this way, it does so not in order to waste its energies in idle diplomatic procedures but so as to gain access to victims in need of help, and these victims are in the power of the States. It is therefore necessary to obtain the required authorisation from States and to maintain the relations of confidence essential for continuing co-operation.”

While it is a duty for the Red Cross Movement to push for an institution’s independence, it is as much a duty for them to ask themselves whether they have been neutral in exercising its judgment.

In humanitarian field, neutrality is perhaps the most important of all principles because at the end of the day, those who seek to benefit from humanitarian aid should not be judged by their religion, race, political affiliation, etc. This also means that they should not be deprived from aid simply because their government or national Red Cross/Red Crescent society has failed to satisfy the Movement’s criteria of independence. Why should they be further inflicted by the wrongs of others?

The fundamental real threat would be if funds are not being channelled to those in need but to further profit those who already have their pockets filled. This, however, is another issue altogether.

So, if Philip Morris wants to donate US$1 million to a free clinic I’m running, I’ll take it. My action won’t have any impact on them because they would continue to produce cigarettes anyway, but be sure that it’ll have a huge impact on a 40 year-old mother who needs dialysis but can’t afford it and, it will have an impact on her whole family.


  1. This article attracted 3 comments on TMI and all were critical of my take on ethics and morality.

    What I've failed to add is that I would have accepted Philip Morris' money if they come with absolutely no strings attached and that includes advertising for them.

    One accused me of being pragmatic and unreligious.God knows how religion always seems to slip its way into a unrelated topic?! But since this person brought it up,
    yes, I would rather be pragmatic and do something to save lives than just pray and wait for God to come to the rescue.

    Another person questioned my understanding of ethics and law, paying in particular attention to buying pirated DVDs. According to him, the said act is not a question of ethics or moral but of legality.

    OMG! I didn't know that buying pirated DVD is illegal in Malaysia. I mean, look at all the "illegal" DVD shops operating in the cities and some even right in front of the police pondok. Surely, it's legal, is it not?

    Of course I know that it's illegal to buy pirated DVDs, you moron. But one could also say that it is ethically wrong to cheat or steal from movie producers, artists, record companies, etc.

    It is illegal to perform oral sex in Malaysia but is it ethically wrong? Perhaps, it is important to talk about ethics, as well as the law, no?

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I truly appreciate your efforts and
    I will be waiting for your next post thank you once again.