After an impressive defense of Thailand's human right record in Geneva in the first cycle of the universal periodic review (UPR) last October, concerned authorities from at least 30 agencies across the country are now hard at work. They have met and consulted over ways and means of implementing recommendations from the resulting documents produced by the UN Human Rights Council and stakeholders.
Out of the 172 recommendations, the Thai government agreed to voluntary implement 134, leaving 38 of them untouched due to their sensitive nature, such as those touching on lese majeste and southern Thailand, among others.
Technically, it has until 2018 to follow through. Under that time frame, Asean will already have become a single community. The country could be a candidate for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2016. Its reputation and positions in the regional and global community could be further promoted or diminished depending on the overall voluntary implementation of measures to improve human rights conditions at home.
It is a tall order and time-consuming to fully comply with all requests, since it will be the first time that Thailand has begun to address the root causes. Throughout the past decade, efforts related to rights abuses were passive and concentrated on investigation, compensation, rehabilitation and healing.
The work of the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) serves as a good example. The DSI has more than 500 staff with a total budget of Bt420 million. In comparison, the Department of Rights and Liberties Protection, which plans and implements policies and measures on human rights, has only 65 officials and a budget of Bt106 million. The asymmetrical funding showed the government's focus is on the effects rather than the causes. The current Thai Constitution is extensive – more than 60 provisions – in protecting all forms of human rights and human dignity both at the individual and collective levels. However, when it comes to implementation, there is a huge gap with the pronounced policies.
After years of trial and error, officials handling human rights, principally at the ministries of Justice, the Interior, Defense and Foreign Affairs, and the National Commission for Human Rights and the Department of Rights and Liberties Protection are on the same page in terms of the best way to tackle human rights violations by zeroing in on prevention and early warning systems aimed at stopping violations from occurring. In private discussions, some of these officials said they drew inspiration from the experience of the Ministry of Public Health in tackling all forms of contagious disease such as avian flu and Sars (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). Public health officials are skilful in conducting surveillance of certain diseases so they can flag early warnings and contain epidemics before they spread to the population at large.
In more ways than one, the success and failure of the country's human rights record would depend on these officials' understanding of the importance of human rights protection within the national and universal contexts, especially officials in the Army and police. Truth be told, it was not until the Tak Bai incident in Narathiwat in October 2004, which caused 90 deaths, that the authorities realized something had gone horribly wrong with their rules of engagement and handling of demonstrators. Since then, through incremental and discreet changes from within, Thai Army officers have begun to educate themselves on human rights with assistance from the rights specialists from the Department of Rights and Liberties Protection. They are more comfortable learning, sharing and picking up best practices from other government officials, than from outside experts. Progress is slow, as the abuses still continue, but nonetheless there have been some improvements.
Previously, inside the Army barracks the mere mention of human rights would be frowned upon immediately as it was taboo. However, over the years more public demands for human rights protections and an end to impunity, coupled with the growing influence of Bangkok-based international human rights organizations and their monitoring, have slowly changed the perception and treatment in the country of rights issues.
Thailand's treatment of extra-judicial killings is a case in point. After nearly a decade, the DSI was able to complete investigations that showed just three cases of genuine drug couriers among the estimated 2,500 extra judicial killings of drug suspects that began in early 2003. Thai human rights defenders believe that half of them were innocent. The DSI has to do more work.
After the establishment of the NHRC in Thailand in 1997, the first four-year human rights action plan was drafted following recommendations by the Vienna Declaration on Human Rights in 1993. The current second four-year plan (2000-2013) addresses the key human rights issues and indicators inside the country.
For instance, Thailand is expected to make further progress on the deliberation of the death penalty as part of the action plan. During the Abhisit government, Thailand pledged to review the archaic practice. Indeed, the penalty has not been carried out for over two decades. Under his government, three executions by lethal injection were administered. The government at the time viewed the executions as a preventive measure to deter the rise of drug trafficking and usage. Concerned officials think capital punishment should be reviewed by taking into consideration all political and cultural factors. Further research must be conducted to determine if the death penalty can deter criminal acts as often claimed. During the UPR in Geneva, 10 nations urged Thailand to either place a moratorium on or to abolish the death penalty.
It is hoped the third four-year human rights action plan (2014-2018), which is in the drafting stage, would dwell on preventive measures, good governance and administration of justice that would enable the authorities to greatly improve human rights protection inside the country. The third plan needs to emphasize educating the public about their rights and their responsibilities. Of course, police should be singled out. Most human rights violations have come at the hands of the police, who have shown a tendency to falsify evidence, arrest suspects without due process of law and to protect their own colleagues. Worse, innocent victims were abused and did not receive proper apologies and compensation. More than the government would like to admit, its leaders have principally relied on the police – who have gained monopolistic power once again in law and order - to do political work.
To be fair, some progress has been made in recent months. After some recalcitrance, Thailand has agreed to welcome all special U.N. rapporteurs depending on priorities and scheduling in the next four years. Last year it ratified the U.N. Convention Against Torture. Next would be the International Convention on the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance. Within the international human rights community, Thailand has a bad reputation as no progress report has been made on the 38 cases of disappearance officially filed since 1992.
It is about time that the Yingluck government, with its oft-touted banner of democracy promotion, sign and ratify all international bills of rights without delay and show prudence in ending all forms of impunity.
|- Kavi Chongkittavorn is a commentator on politics and culture in Southeast Asia.|