The report on the human-rights situation in the Kingdom recently submitted by Thailand to the UN Human Rights Council is a relatively decent one. Of course, it could be better, as some civil society leaders and academics have argued. Judging from the overall substance, and from the drafting and consultation process, it accurately reflects the full spectrum of human-rights conditions in the Kingdom, as well as the various challenges facing the country.

It is better than the 2005 report—a rather “hush-hush” work that lacked sufficient contributions from the civil-society and grassroots sectors. This time, five public consultations and a number of smaller meetings were held in all four major regions of Thailand, and input included from separate reports from 27 non-governmental organisations.

While the report was prepared and completed under the Abhisit government (2009-11) with input from all stakeholders, it is treated as a national report, not that of a particular government or group. The question now arises as to how the new government will deal with the report, which makes reference to the political turbulence in 2010. At a recent public forum, the new government was urged to send a top-level official to Geneva on Oct 5, when Thailand presents the rights report as part of the Universal Periodic Review process. Cuba, Indonesia and Nigeria form a troika that has been tasked with facilitating dialogue on this topic with Thailand and following up on the outcome. Thailand is the last Asean member to be scrutinised under the process.

In 2005, when Thailand last defended its human-rights record at the UN, it was faced with serious allegations of gross violations of human rights coming out of the anti-drug campaign in early 2003, which left more than 3,100 people dead, according to reports at the time. Later, it appeared that the numbers were even higher as the war on drugs continued clandestinely until the beginning of 2004, with as many as 2,000 additional victims. Despite widespread accusations of extra-judicial killings, very few people have been brought to justice.

The current report, however, will zero in on the events of April/May 2010 and subsequent administration of justice.

When Sihasak Phuangketkeow, Thailand’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, was elected president of the UN Human Rights Council last year, the Abhisit government pledged to increase awareness of human rights and improve protections to international standards. In the course of the drafting and consultative process over the past year, Thailand made use of all the major international human-rights instruments as benchmarks. During its 18-month Asean chair period (July 2008-December 2009), Thailand also pushed hard for similar standards in the drafting of the Asean Charter and in the terms of reference for the establishment of the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights.

Although Thailand is proud to have been among the first group of 48 countries to endorse the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is signatory to only seven international human-rights instruments, far behind some of its Asean neighbours. Unfortunately, the previous government did not sign, as it intended to, the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons From Enforced Disappearance. The country’s record in terms of disappearances is among the worst in the world. Since the 1990s there has been little progress in the investigations of 52 outstanding reported disappearances, including those of labour leader Tanong Poh-ard, missing since 1992, and human-rights lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit, missing since 2005. In this period, only three cases have been resolved, and the issue remains a big black mark on Thailand’s human-rights record.

Most glaringly, the report highlights Thailand’s lack of civil and political rights protections in comparison to its more advanced environments in terms of economic, social and cultural rights. The 18 paragraphs detailing rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, and discussing the administration of justice, are carefully structured and argued. Obviously, the most controversial paragraph is No 24, which contains a 135-word passage on the right to freedom of expression as it relates to the monarchy.

The report says Thailand has striven to find a balance between protecting the monarchy and the right of individuals to express their views. The National Human Rights Commission and the Ministry of Justice have embarked on a process to review lese-majeste-related laws and practices. Better coordination among the police and prosecutors are pivotal for proper legal proceedings under the Criminal Code’s section 112 and the 2007 Computer Crimes Act.

The latter has proven to be the most lethal weapon used by the authorities today to silence the Thai public, at home and abroad. As the number of suppressed websites and Web pages continues to increase, Thailand’s reputation as the region’s beacon of media freedom evaporates. The practice has landed the country on at least two dozen global watch lists of nations with strict online-censorship regimes. There is an urgent need to increase awareness among officials tasked with monitoring Internet use at the ministries of Information and Communications Technology; Culture; and Defense, and at the Special Branch Police and the Department of Special Investigation. In a similar vein, online users of all ages must understand the nature of old and new laws and their intents. Unintentionally though it may have been, law enforcers and online users have done unfathomable damage to the country’s long-standing right to freedom of expression and to the monarchy’s creditability, due to their myopic one-sided advocacy.

Thailand’s records on economic and social rights leave room for improvement. While income inequality between rich and poor remains a huge structural problem, various schemes exist to assist low-income families and improve their standards of living, land ownership, housing and education. The universal healthcare scheme is highlighted in the report. UN organisations such as the UN Development Program and the International Labour Organisation have hailed the country’s upholding of the right to healthcare, which comes in with various health-security systems, including the universal health-coverage scheme. The 15-year free education programme from kindergarten to high school level, regardless of nationality, also flies the flag for Thailand’s upholding of social rights.

Thailand has a mixed record on displaced persons, asylum seekers and human trafficking. While it has a solid record of providing humanitarian assistance to refugees, this is not the case when it comes to people trafficking, for which Thailand remains one of the region’s transit centres, especially for exploited sex workers and labourers. Though the country has not signed the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, it continues to host about 110,000 displaced persons from Burma. During the 1970s and ’80s, more than 3 million Indochinese refugees lived in and were processed through Thailand before resettling in third countries. With such extensive experience, it should have signed the refugee convention once and for all to avoid becoming a target of criticism over human-rights abuses whenever there are influxes of displaced persons and asylum seekers from countries near or far, including North Korea. –Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation