Sunday, December 11, 2011

Civil disobedience cannot rule the law

The Sunday Star
by Roger Tan

Street Protest: Civil disobedience is becoming a popular tactical weapon used by politicians and civil rights movements to justify their violation of laws.
IN 1996, when my clients and I were negotiating with the Attorney-General’s Chambers, led by its then head of the advisory and international division Tan Sri Abdul Gani Patail, I warned that too high a rate might cause the public to refuse payment to privatised entities out of civil disobedience.

Then, both my learned friends across the table and my own clients were rather amused by my argument.

Today, this term “civil disobedience” appears to be the “in-thing” among politicians, particularly those from the opposition, backed by non-governmental organisations and civil rights and liberties movements.

It is becoming a popular tactical weapon used by them to justify their violation of laws which, in their view, are “unjust”, apart from indulging in some polemics.

Hence, we saw various street protests being held without a police permit in contravention of the Police Act (1967).

So, what is civil disobedience? I would define it as an open and deliberate law-breaking or infringement of rights to get public attention that is often politically motivated, and normally is carried out because the civil disobedients conscientiously feel, whether sincerely or otherwise, that they are morally obliged to do so.

Pressure groups around the world have, over the years, resorted to this means to secure their desired legal and social changes. But for an act to be considered civil disobedience, the disobedients must also be prepared to accept punishment for infracting the laws.

This is, in fact, fine with them as the courtroom will give them the publicity they seek for the causes and issues which they are advancing.

The father of the modern concept of civil disobedience is said to be American Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). For six years, he refused to pay taxes because of his opposition to slavery and the Mexican-American War. For that, he was thrown into jail in July 1846, but he only spent one night in jail because the next day, his aunt, against his wishes, paid his taxes.

We are undoubtedly more acquainted with celebrated modern-day civil disobedients such as Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), Martin Luther King (1929-1968) and Rosa Parks (1913-2005).

Parks was fined for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger but Gandhi and King were jailed for disobeying the law. There is no denying that Gandhi’s Satyagraha and King’s civil rights movements brought immense legal and social changes to India and the United States respectively.

These civil disobedients were much inspired by the words of St Augustine (354-430) that an unjust law is no law at all (lex iniusta non est lex). So, one is under a moral obligation to disobey such a law. King also added that “sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application”.

The story told by Professor Charles Lund Black (1915-2001) of Yale Law School, an outspoken critic of the death penalty, about one Pawnee Indian brave named Peshwataro, best illustrates the operation and benefits of civil disobedience:

“The law of the Pawnee commanded that on the summer solstice there take place the sacrifice of the star maiden. A girl was each year captured from a neighbouring tribe and bound to a stake. At dawn, the Pawnee braves would ride in a circle about her and shoot their arrows into her.