Thailand's Toothless Human Rights Commission

During the administration of the then-Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRC) was dubbed the most helpful and most relevant independent agency in the eyes of ordinary Thais. That is no longer true.

At that time, the NHRC took on hard and sensitive human rights abuses committed under Thaksin's administration such as the extrajudicial executions of alleged drug traffickers under the pretext of the War on Drugs as well as a crackdown against peaceful demonstrators who were protesting against construction of the Thai-Malaysian gas pipeline. With Thaksin’s sister in charge, and with many of the officials left over from his administration now in government, those kinds of investigations have ceased.

The NHRC was founded in 2001 as an independent institution to monitor government and non-state actors' human rights records and to ensure that they were in compliance with international human rights standards. The commission’s legal basis lies in the 1997 Constitution after years and years of campaigns by Thai and international human rights activists.

At present, however, the commission is seen as completely irrelevant in providing support and remedy for the victims of human rights violations. The feeling is that it has let down many human rights activists who see this body as no longer relevant.

While the 2007 Constitution gave the commission more power to tackle human rights violations compared with the 2001 NHRC Act, such as the ability to file complaints on behalf of the victims to the Administrative Court and recommend that the Constitutional Court review laws that run counter to human rights, the body has done very little in the past three years. One of the main reasons lies with the problematic process of selecting the commissioners.

The selection process under the 1997 Constitution allowed a selection committee consisting of representatives coming from diverse sectors in the society such as university rectors, civil society and media organizations, political parties and other sectors in the society to be involved. However, under the 2007 Constitution, the selection committee was scrapped and the power to select the commission was handed to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the leader of the Opposition Party and five retired and active judges from different courts.

This explains why the former civil servants from the Royal Thai Police, Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, Drink Don't Drive Foundation campaigner, and a businessman were selected instead of veteran human rights activists. Of seven commissioners, only Dr Nirand Pitakwatchara, former community activist turned senator, could be said to be worthy of the position.

To put it simply, the current batch of the NHRC is composed of individuals who have very little knowledge of human rights, let alone have heard the sufferings of human rights victims. Worse off, the name of Dr Parinya Sirisarakarn, a businessman turned human rights commissioner, appeared in the report in the previous batch of the NHRC as a human rights violator after his salt extraction company in Nakorn Ratchasima Province was found to have contaminated water used by villagers in the province. During the hearing by the senate on his NHRC application in 2009, he described the Falun Gong movement in China as a CIA plot to embarrass China’s government and said international pressure on Burma at that time constituted interference in the internal affairs of the military government.

While the Constitution stresses explicitly that the commissioners need to have knowledge and experience in the field of human rights, the current batch do not know what are and what are not human rights, Ms Visa Benjamano, who handles women and child's rights affairs, in her interview on abortion stressed that abortion is a violation of the child's rights and is contradictory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Dr Taejing Siripanich, a campaigner from Drink Don't Drive, tried to say that a criminal act such as drink driving is a human rights violation. Dr Parinya Sirisarakarn continues to campaign to protect the territorial integrity of Thailand concerning the Preah Vihear temple while the squabble clearly has nothing to do with human rights. During the April-May 2010 violence, Police General Wanchai Srinualnad gave a public statement that those whose properties were affected by the arson could file their complaint to the Commission but made no mention of the victims who were killed or injured from the action by the military.

Since most of the Commissioners are former government officials, it is no surprise that the operational procedure has also changed. Government officials usually view reports and findings as internal documents within the Ministries and Departments and should not be made public.

During the first batch of the Commission, however reports and fact finding missions were made public and accessible through websites. The yearly report containing the commission’s work and findings was published in a timely manner. Those reports are good tools for civil society and human rights victims to use in their public campaigns and as follow-ups to make sure that state agencies comply with the findings. Under the current commission, the reports are rarely made public. The reports on the website consist mainly of old reports by previous commissioners. To this date, the NHRC has continued to delay the publication of its fact-finding report on the April–May 2010 crackdown after 37 months have passed.

As the Pheu Thai Party which controls the government is pushing to amend the Constitution, there is a need for the party to seriously consider the need to reform the NHRC. It is vital that the selection process of the commissioners be changed back to the way it was under the 1997 Constitution which brings in the involvement of diverse sectors of society and is not dominated by the judiciary as it is at this moment. If this is included in the plan, the commission might be able to bring back its relevancy once again as an agency that truly works to promote and protect human rights.

(The writer is a human rights activist. He had served in a number of capacities with different human rights organizations including Amnesty International Thailand, the Somchai Neelaphajit Memorial Fund, and FORUM-ASIA. Views expressed here are his own.)