Thailand needs to move beyond its human rights rhetoric
On 28th February 2011, the Thai Foreign Minister Mr. Kasit Piromya, addressed the 16th regular session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva at its High Level Segment (HLS). The HLS, which takes place in March of each year, was the first Ministerial level speech that Thailand delivered since it was elected as a member of the Council in May 2010.
The HLS is closely monitored by UN agencies and NGOs since it is meant to outline the official human rights policy of governments, not merely a discussion by diplomats with ambassadorial rank. Human rights groups working on Thailand hoped that the speech would substantially address the deteriorating conditions in the country.
It was a disappointment.
But, if anything, the speech revealed that there is a deep chasm between what the Thai government is promising at the international level and the actual policies at home.
First, Mr. Kasit’s speech detailed the progress in the investigation into the Red Shirt protests last summer, saying that the government aims to bring the perpetrators to account. Yet in Thailand, this seems far from happening.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), which are tasked with investigating the crackdown, have yet to finalize their reports and have surpassed their deadlines. Ten months have passed. The TRC was supposed to release its report on January 2011 and the original deadline of the NHRC report was October 2010.
The importance of a credible and independent investigation into the April-May crackdown was highlighted by Ms. Navanethem Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in June 2010, despite the skepticism among rights groups whether the TRC and NHRC could act with highest standards of impartiality.
The speech also brought to light the uncertainty in the attempt to bring the perpetrators to account. The directive which set up the TRC does not give it power to bring perpetrators to justice. As legal persecutions are being pressed upon the opposition Red shirt leaders and protesters, the question rest among families of the deceased as to on how long does it take until there is justice delivered to their sons, daughters, and fathers who allegedly perished in the hands of the army?
Second, the government’s application of human rights standards and principles differs from region to region, exemplifying double standards when it comes to ASEAN States. The Foreign Minister spoke of the recent HRC Special Session held on 25 February which addressed the crisis in Libya, during which Thailand spoke in support of the concept of responsibility to protect and supported the idea of UN-led investigation to the country.
However when it comes to human rights abuses in neighboring Burma, Thailand’s tone is starkly different. This double standard exists despite decades of crises in Burma, involving hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons, and the continued chronic, systematic and ongoing human rights abuses against its own people by Burmese regime. Thailand failed to support a similar call raised since March 2010 by Mr. Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Burma for the Commission of Inquiry into the alleged war crimes in the country.
Third, the government’s full support of human rights initiatives at the UN is highly questionable. Bangkok has always praised itself for being a party to seven out of the nine core human rights treaties, but rarely talks about responsibilities that come with it. After acceding to these treaties, governments have full obligations to submit reports to the UN on how those treaties have been implemented locally. The database of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights outlines that out of seven reports that Thailand is obliged to submit to the UN, only two have been submitted, while the other five are still unsettled.
Ten independent human rights investigators at the UN HRC, known commonly as the Special Rapporteurs, have raised their intentions to make country visits to Thailand. Thailand, despite being both the Chair of the HRC, is not among the 73 countries that have extended open invitation to the Special Rapporteurs to visit the country. These Special Rapporteurs, which handle issues ranging from freedom of expression, extrajudicial killing, minority issues, arbitrary detention, human rights defenders, and others, have yet to receive the green light from Bangkok.
Fourth, the speech emphasized that Thailand is prioritizing its plan to implement the voluntary pledges that it gave prior to the HRC election in February 2010. The voluntary pledges are human rights policies that each government promises to implement if it is elected to serve in the council. For Thailand, one of its pledges was to take serious measures to ending impunity.
The issue of state impunity, especially the war on drugs, which reportedly lead to the extra-judicial killings of at least 2,500 people under the administration of Thaksin Shinnawatra, has been commonly referred to by the ruling Democrat-led government in the debate on how Thaksin’s administration had a worse human rights record than they. However, after almost two and a half years in office, the Democrat-led government has failed to bring a single high-ranking military or police officials involved in atrocities under Thaksin to trial.
The government promised that the case of disappeared human rights lawyer Somchai Neelaphaitjit would be given priority. The seventh anniversary of his disappearance will be commemorated next week and his family continues to wait, empty-handed.
It’s not very likely that culprits behind the assassination of 20 activists and 85 victims of the Tak Bai massacre will be held accountable for their crimes anytime soon. Nor would there be an investigation into the January 2009 incident where Burmese Rohingya refugees were mercilessly towed to sea to an uncertain fate without supplies.
In conclusion, the government needs to do much more to match the differing promises made at the international level and the situation on the ground. As the Chair of the UN Human Rights Council, Thailand is at a critical position to lead by example. It must be able to prove that speeches that it gives at the UN are not merely political rhetoric for international community or empty promises left undone.
Pokpong Lawansiri is a human rights advocate and researcher. He was, until September 2010, a World Bank scholar at the Department of Political Science, University College London.