Thai Junta Guts Toothless Human Rights Commission

The New York-based Human Rights Watch is accusing Thailand’s junta of gutting an already weak National Human Rights Commission by combining it with the country’s ombudsman’s office.

In truth, the Commission has never been very effective. It has been filled with members selected by non-democratic institutions and cowed by a long succession of military governments and advocates from the palace. Whatever Human Rights Watch’s concerns, it was even less likely that the new constitution would provide additional protections.

It seems obvious that the aim of the May 22, 2014 coup was to aggressively manipulate the electoral system to make sure that majority rule is not an option, and to ensure that the country’s royalists and Bangkok elite prevail in any election, now projected for 2016. In particular, the constitution is being designed to make sure no interests aligned with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra would be allowed to take power through the ballot box.

On Jan.30, Bawornsak Uwanno, head of the Constitution Drafting Committee, announced that the committee had adopted draft language to merge the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the Office of the Ombudsman of Thailand into one body to be called the Office of the Ombudsman and Human Rights Protection. Bawornsak said the NHRC and the Ombudsman have similar functions so they should be merged for efficiency and to reduce operational costs.

According to Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams, “Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission and Ombudsman serve very different purposes and shouldn’t be merged. Since the May 2014 military coup, Thailand has been a human rights disaster that needs an independent National Human Rights Commission to hold the junta accountable – now more than ever.”

According to the Constitution Drafting Committee’s proposal seen by Human Rights Watch, the proposed agency is expected to be comprised of 11 commissioners “selected in a closed and unaccountable vetting system by the Thai senate. The proposal states that the commissioners should be persons ‘having apparent knowledge and experiences in the protection of rights and liberties of the people, having regard also to the participation of representatives from private organizations in the field of human rights,” Adams said in a prepared release.

The committee, he said, failed to engage in serious consultations with civil society about these changes and any measures to ensure the selection of independent and qualified human rights commissioners. The committee failed to recognize the different mandates of the NHRC and the Ombudsman, and also didn’t take into account past criticisms about the lack of transparency and inclusiveness in the selection of NHRC members.

In 2009, HRW pointed out, the screening committee, consisting of five senior judges and the president of the parliament, chose seven candidates from a pool of more than 100 in a closed meeting that left no channel for public comment. The senate then effectively rubber-stamped the committee’s decision. As a result, the existing commissioners lack diversity and human rights experience or understanding.

“Instead of making a weak human rights agency even weaker, the Constitution Drafting Committee should be seeking ways to ensure a broad-based, effective, and independent membership,” Adams said.

“The Principles Relating to the Status of National Institutions on human rights (“The Paris Principles”), which were adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993, state: ‘The composition of the national institution and the appointment of its members, whether by means of an election or otherwise, shall be established in accordance with a procedure which affords all necessary guarantees to ensure the pluralist representation of the social forces (of civilian society) involved in the protection and promotion of human rights,’” according to HRW’s statement.

The International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights issued a report on Dec. 31, 2014, pointing out that the NHRC is composed of only “officials from a very small number of public institutions, with no clear representation, or a requirement for consultation with key stakeholder groups or civil society.”

In addition, the report also questioned the NHRC’s independence and credibility, saying that “staff members of the NHRC were displaying publicly their political affiliations whilst undertaking official functions.”

The International Coordinating Committee report also noted with concern the significant delays in the NHRC’s investigations of serious human rights issues, including violence and abuses related to the 2010 political confrontations between the government of then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship – the “Red Shirts” – and the 2013 uprising of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee against the government of then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister.

Based largely on concerns about the commissioners’ selection process and performance, the International Coordinating Committee recommended a downgrade in the ranking of the NHRC to “B” status, which would cause the NHRC to lose privileges to present views at the UN Human Rights Council.

“The Constitutional Drafting Committee’s merger idea has the potential to make the international downgrade of Thailand’s human rights commission a permanent one,” Adams said. “If adopted, the new body is unlikely to play any sort of serious rights protection role and would lose all international standing and credibility.”