The sixth of eight children of an immigrant from Sri Lanka, renowned attorney Param Cumaraswamy was born in 1941 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where he received his early education. He read law at the Inns of Court in London and was admitted as a barrister-at-law by the Inner Temple in 1966. The following year he began practicing law in Kuala Lumpur and in 1971 was also admitted as an advocate and solicitor in Singapore. He joined the prestigious law firm of Shook Lin and Bok and later became Chief Executive Partner of the firm, one of Malaysia's three largest.
He was active in the Bar Council of Malaysia for 24 years, serving as its chairman from 1986 to 1988 and holding various other positions, including the offices of treasurer, secretary and vice president. He was a founding member of the Malaysian Bar Council Human Rights Committee and Legal Aid Committee. He also served from 1986-89 as the chairman of the Human Rights Committee of the International Bar Association.
His activism on behalf of human rights and the independence of the judiciary caused him to clash repeatedly with repressive government. In the mid-1980s, as vice president of the Malaysian Bar Association and chairman of its Human Rights Committee, he called on the Pardons Board of Kuala Lumpur to consider the petition for the commutation of a death sentence imposed on a laborer and not to discriminate between rich and poor petitioners. The public statement was central in a charge of sedition brought against him in 1985; he was acquitted after a six-day trial observed by members of many foreign bar associations, and the verdict was hailed as a landmark judgment for freedom of expression in Malaysia.
Two years later, while serving as chairman of the Human Rights Committee of the International Bar Association, he protested Singapore's detention of numerous lawyers and others without trial, and the Singapore government responded by banning him from entry to the country. His ongoing defense of human rights in Malaysia drew harassment and intimidation, including death threats. From 1995 to 2001 he was besieged by crippling, multi-million dollar defamation actions brought against him for his remarks – reported in a London periodical - concerning alleged impropriety in the Malaysian judiciary. The article was based on an interview Mr. Cumaraswamy gave in his capacity as UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, and the UN supported his claim of immunity from legal process. Eventually the International Court of Justice in The Hague directed the Malaysian Courts to recognize his immunity, and the suits were withdrawn. However, six years of legal battles and glaring publicity took a toll; in 1998, Mr. Cumaraswamy resigned from his law firm to protect it from embarrassment and loss of business and opened his own practice.
While he has been attacked by some, he has been honored by many. Besides his service with the Malaysian and international bar associations and with the United Nations, he has distinguished himself in numerous legal organizations. He is a life-long member of the Law Association of Asia and the Pacific, its former president, and chairman of its Human Rights Committee. He was appointed commissioner of the International Commission of Jurists in 1991 and served on its executive committee from 1998 to 2002. He is a member of the International Board of Article 19, the Global Campaign for Free Expression; an honorary member of the Law Society of New Zealand; a member of the Regional Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism; chairman of the Malaysian Working Group; and vice president of Transparency International, Malaysian chapter.
In 1989 the Sultan of the Malaysian state of Kelantan conferred on him the title "Dato" in honor of his role in the 1988 judicial crisis in Malaysia, during which he defended six judges against executive attack. The Irish Unity Conference awarded him its first International Peace and Justice Award in 1999 for his "integrity, leadership and courage in objectively and publicly addressing the fragility of human and civil rights for all the people in the North of Ireland."
He has written extensively about the independence of the legal profession and the judiciary and about the importance of human rights. He also has lectured widely on a variety of legal topics, but especially on the role of an independent and responsible judiciary in fostering democracy.
He has a son, Roberto Shankar, two daughters, Shanthi and Deborah, and a grandson, Liam. He is married to Davinder Kaur, an attorney and business executive.