2010 Dec 12
December 12, 2010

Rights body more a lamb than a lion

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Critics say the revamped National Human Rights Commission has been too passive in exercising its mandate to sound a warning on social injustice

The overly cautious approach of the new National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has left the impression with some rights groups that it has been transformed from an independent body into a government ally. This is particularly true with respect to the military crackdown on the red shirt protest in central Bangkok in May of this year and the related emergency decree called to deal with dissidents, who are often labelled as terrorists by the government.

The 2007 Constitution empowered the commission to file lawsuits against government agencies in rights abuse cases, but this new authority is waiting on the necessary organic laws.

Pansak Srithep, the father of a teenager killed during the military operation at Ratchaprarop in May, said it was understandable, though unacceptable, that government agencies such as the Department of Special Investigation and the Truth for Reconciliation Commission have belittled the plight of the April-May victims. But it was disheartening and disgusting, he added, that supposedly independent bodies such as the NHRC, once considered a regional champion for democracy, had been silent for the past six months.

His comments were made just weeks before NHRC chairperson Amara Pongsapich broke the silence early this month and said that the commission would finalise its reports next month on the political demonstrations that cemented the polarisation of the country.

Most observers attribute the caution shown by the new commissioners, whose selection last year was problematic from the very beginning, to the heavily censored environment in all sectors of Thai society. NHRC members have said they don’t want the organisation to be “used” by either side in the political conflict.

“Whatever actions taken or not taken, and whatever words are spoken to the public, are primarily aimed at lessening and not exacerbating the deep wounds in society brought on by the political divide,” said a senior official with the NHRC who asked not to be named.

That may explain why incidents such as the two-night, three-day outdoor detention of some 16 red shirt protesters in Mukdahan province right after the May 19 crackdown in Bangkok were not made public by the NHRC. According to several sources the protesters, including one minor, were kept in a police van and not allowed to leave it even to go to the toilet.

“Even the most sympathetic and active commissioners, such as Dr Niran Pitakwatchara, have been caught in this dilemma of self-censorship. We do not have to mention others,” said the official.

One commissioner, former supreme court judge Paiboon Warhapaitoon, has reportedly said that it was appropriate for the police to arrest a woman in Ayutthaya last month for selling flip-flops with images of the face of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, as this was an abuse of the PM’s rights. Mr Abhisit himself has since been critical of the arrest.

Meanwhile, NHRC member Wanchai Srinuannut, a former police general, has said that the commission might help any member of the public who wanted to sue the red shirts for disrupting their lives with their demonstration.

The NHRC has been mostly silent not only concerning the April-May incidents, but also on related authoritarian curbs of freedom of expression, including the quietly-expanding exercise of the lese majeste law. This is despite Mr Abhisit’s promise to look into the “appropriate application” of the law.

Also supplying ammunition for NHRC critics was the purchase of Mercedes-Benz cars (instead of Camrys, as their predecessors drove) for each of the commissioners before the end of fiscal year 2009.

Some NHRC subcommittee members said politicking within the office had decreased the commission’s effectiveness, but also said it wasn’t fair to put too much blame on the NHRC regarding its handling of domestic political rights issues.

“We’ve been working wholeheartedly on several other issues, such as migration and refugees,” said one subcommittee member.

But Jaran Klomkhuntod, an influential campaigner for the Federation of Automobile Unions, said: “This NHRC does not seem to be eager to take issues close to their hearts, compared with the previous one.”

Despite better organisation from labour groups, union issues are being sidelined or buried under red tape by government or quasi-government agencies, he said.

“We have pushed our agenda with provincial labour officials, the International Labour Organisation and the NHRC, as well as the recently launched reform panels. Actions in response to our demands have been painfully slow in coming or nonexistent,” said Mr Jaran.

Human rights issues taken up with the NHRC include the contractual labour prevalently imposed on assembly-line workers in the manufacturing sector, layoffs, the intimidation or even killing of labour leaders and the sweeping presence of foreign workers replacing Thais in several industrial sectors, he said.

Thongchai Winichakul, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin in the US, criticised what he called Thailand’s apathetic approach to democratisation and its failure to protect human rights.

“The key element is the justice system, whose legitimacy is disappearing fast. The whole society is at risk with the evaporation of trust,” said Mr Thongchai, who was a leading student activist in Thailand in 1976.

He cited the chronic crisis in the South as a precursor to what could happen in the larger Thai society.

“In this gradual bankruptcy of trust, human rights issues and human rights advocates are parts of the process. Their failure is not merely that they’ve failed to defend human rights principles, but indeed, they’ve contributed significantly to the bankruptcy,” he said.

NHRC chairperson Ms Amara conceded that the commission had taken cautious steps regarding the release of its findings on the red shirt protests. She said there were three subcommittees involved in the report to be released next month, one chaired by herself, one by Mr Paiboon and one by Dr Niran. She said the main paper would be released in January next year, and it would list human rights abuses committed by the military, “men in black” and red shirt members during the three-month-long protest.

“What we found is similar to what has already been in the media reports. But we might not be finger-pointing in each incident, to say who were the culprits,” said Ms Amara, adding: “We have been working and are still working despite so many difficulties.”

One of the major obstacles for the NHRC is the lack of an organic law expediting the authority of the NHRC to bring charges against human rights abusers. The law has yet to be passed by parliament.

The disappointing performance of the NHRC should be a reminder to all that upholding human rights will never be accomplished through the benevolence of the ruling class, but rather through the strivings of the very underdogs who are overwhelmingly on the receiving end of rights abuses.

Asean rights group still only window dressing

Launched at the regional grouping’s summit in Thailand in October of last year, the 10-member Asean Inter-Governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) has met three times, and remarkably accomplished several projects.

Upon its initiation, the commission’s immediate tasks were to draft the Declaration of Asean Human Rights, develop rules of procedures (or the guidelines) and propose a five-year work plan before the middle of next year. All of these have been endorsed by the Asean foreign ministers.

Most AICHR commissioners are officials or diplomats, with the exception of Thailand (academic) and Indonesia (NGO). The commissioners have two more years to create the framework for their successors to build upon. Though most rights advocates expect the Asean body to remain rather toothless due to several structural and mindset shortcomings, regional and international NGOs remain hopeful and are trying to engage with the AICHR. They are also working to reinvigorate existing channels of communication (interface dialogue and Asean Peoples’ Forum) between the AICHR and civil groups for the coming year, when Indonesia will take the chair of Asean.

Amnesty International legal adviser for the Asia-Pacific region Yuval Ginbar was supportive of Asean’s moves towards protection and promotion of human rights through the establishment of mechanisms within Asean, which include the Asean Commission on Women and Children as well as the AICHR. He also welcomed the attempts to create a legally-binding framework for protecting migrant workers’ rights and other initiatives within Asean.

However, Mr Ginbar voiced concerns shared by other NGOs that the AICHR still must deal with structural flaws within its terms of reference. These include a heavy emphasis on “principles” such as sovereignty, non-interference and “regional particularities”; lack of detail on the protection element within the AICHR’s mandate; lack of independence; and the veto powers granted to each state by the “consensus” principle, which may lead to paralysis in the AICHR’s work, or to unacceptable compromises at the expense of the human rights of the individuals and groups in the region in most need of protection.

The NGOs called on the AICHR to make some fundamental shifts, such as turning thematic studies into thorough investigations, finding ways to create meaningful dialogues with civil societies, ensuring access to individuals and groups who are suffering human rights violations and finding ways of protecting these rights, and intervening forcefully in situations where human rights situations have reached crisis proportions, such as in Burma.

Ryan Silverio, of the Southeast Asia Child Rights Coalition, said he is encouraged that the 2010-2015 Work Plan of the AICHR has included child soldiers and other children’s rights issues (trafficking in persons, juvenile justice, the right to education) in the list of thematic issues for the AICHR to work on. However, Mr Silverio remarked that the proactive stance taken by certain AICHR members _ particularly the representatives from Thailand and Indonesia _ does not reflect the performance of the entire body. “Highlighting the positive performance of these two representatives would divert our attention from the larger structural and bureaucratic defects of the AICHR,” said the child activist from Manila.

Pokpong Lawansiri, a Thai human rights activist, agreed that with the exception of the Thai and Indonesian commissioners’ efforts to engage with their respective civil societies, the regional body has yet to systematically and practically communicate with the peoples of Asean.

“The AICHR’s silence over several human rights violations including the Mindanao [Philippines] massacre, the April-May bloody crackdown of red shirt protesters, and rampant police and military torture in many countries is a shame,” said Mr Pokpong. –http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/politics/210916/rights-body-more-a-lamb-than-a-lion