International court intervenes in UN rapporteur's libel battle

A battle to protect the immunity of the UN's Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers from prosecution has reached the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Param Cumaraswamy is being sued for allegedly libelling Malaysian businessmen whom he accused of manipulating the Malaysian judicial system in a London-based trade paper.

In February, the Malaysian Federal Court ruled that he did not have immunity from prosecution for libel and an £8.9m libel case brought by two Malaysian companies was allowed to proceed, throwing the independence of all the UN's rapporteurs into doubt.

The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), one of the six principal organs of the UN, has now referred the case to the ICJ. It is only the second time that ECOSOC has made use of its power to request an advisory opinion from the ICJ.

The ICJ will decide whether the Malaysian government has reneged on its UN treaty obligations by allowing the case to proceed. If the ICJ says Malaysia broke the 1957 treaty, then the country will have to reverse its decision or face the possibility of sanctions.

Desmond Fernando, president of the International Bar Association, said: “It is important that the special rapporteurs are free to comment on the work they are doing. The legal system in Malaysia has failed us miserably. No individual or company should be in a position to curtail or limit human rights.”