The ICJ today expressed its dismay that the Singapore Court of Appeal, in a judgment issued on 4 March 2015 declined to declare caning, a painful form of corporal punishment, to be unlawful.
The administration of caning violates the absolute prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment under international law.
Despite this prohibition, the Court of Appeal determined that any international legal prohibition had no effect on Singapore, since the legislature had not made it part of the country’s domestic law.
The ICJ emphasized that Singapore’s failure to prohibit caning in its own national law in no way makes caning a lawful act.
Under international law, caning remains wrong and illegal, irrespective of the country’s domestic arrangements.
The Court of Appeal also ruled that caning, administered as a form of judicially imposed punishment in Singapore, does not amount to torture.
The Court of Appeal stated that caning did not “breach the high threshold of severity and brutality that is required for it to be regarded as torture.”
The ICJ notes that the international prohibition against ill-treatment extends not only to torture, but also to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment.
The ICJ considers that caning constitutes both types of ill-treatment.
The ruling was issued by the Singapore Court of Appeals in the case of Yong Vui Kong, a 26-year old man who appealed against his sentence of 15 strokes of the cane and life imprisonment imposed as a punishment for an offence under the Misuse of Drugs Act.
Upon his conviction in 2011, Yong Vui Kong had initially been sentenced to death.
Following changes in the law and an application for re-sentencing to the High Court, his sentence was modified in 2013 to life imprisonment and ‘15 strokes of the cane’.
In his appeal, which was dismissed by the Court of Appeal, Yong Vui Kong challenged this sentence on several grounds, including that caning constitutes torture, which is prohibited under international law.
“The Court of Appeal’s ruling is out of step with Singapore’s obligations to prevent, prohibit and punish all forms of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. International human rights bodies have made clear that caning and other forms of corporal punishment violate the absolute prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. As such it must be prohibited,” said Emerlynne Gil, International Legal Adviser for Southeast Asia of the ICJ.
Laws in Singapore that permit the imposition of corporal punishment are inconsistent with Singapore’s obligation to prohibit torture and other ill-treatment at all times and in all circumstances.
Consequently, in 2011 the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child asked Singapore to “prohibit unequivocally by law, without any further delay, all forms of corporal punishment, including caning, in all settings”.
In addition, when Singapore went under the Universal Periodic Review of its human rights record before the UN Human Rights Council in 2011, several States recommended that the authorities abolish all corporal punishment, including caning.
The ICJ also emphasizes that all forms of torture and other cruel inhuman or degrading treatment are absolutely prohibited by customary international law and international treaties binding on Singapore, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).
The prohibition against torture is also a peremptory norm of international law, as recognized by numerous legal authorities and by all States in repeated UN General Assembly resolutions.
The peremptory character of the norm means that it overrides all other laws, international or domestic. The Court of Appeal dismissed any effect that the peremptory character of the prohibition might have on its administration in Singapore.
The ICJ calls on the lawmakers in Singapore to act without delay to outlaw corporal punishment.
Emerlynne Gil, International Legal Adviser for Southeast Asia, t +66840923575 ; e emerlynne.gil(a)icj.org