In an interview posted on the website of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of Thailand, the commission's new chairwoman, Amara Pongsapich, has effectively promised to make the national rights institution meaningless and irrelevant, other than as an obstacle to human rights.
Throughout the process of selecting and appointing the new commission's seven members, who include among their ranks a named human rights violator, a policeman and a court administrator, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) made clear that this would be the consequence of their appointment. In the interview ('On the Record: New NHRC embraces spirit of cooperation', from the Bangkok Post, 21 July 2009), the new chairwoman makes plain that the role of the commission is now no longer one of human rights defender but human rights perpetrators' defender.
In this statement, the AHRC responds with remarks on some contents of the interview, following questions and answers in the original text.
Q. How do you explain local and regional comments on the non-participatory selection process of your commission?
A. The process was in line with the 2007 constitution, which stipulates that a seven-member panel would be set up to nominate seven prospective commissioners for Senate endorsement.
AHRC comment: The answer is correct. The 2007 Constitution is undemocratic and was introduced through a military coup to reduce the effectiveness of parliamentary government in Thailand. Therefore, it is not surprising that this non-human rights commission is the result of its process. It is also the case that as a result the NHRC is no longer a National Human Rights Institution under the terms of the international Paris Principles. For this reason the AHRC has written to the agency responsible for monitoring compliance with the principles to see that the NHRC is downgraded and is prohibited from participating in United Nations forums.
Q When did the line-up get royal endorsement and how were you selected as chairwoman?
A. ... We agreed to delegate works according to experience and the interests of each commissioner. For example, former senator Niran Pitakwatchara will liaise with people's movements while Pol Gen Wanchai and Paiboon Warahapaitoon will take charge of legal and judicial procedures.
AHRC comment: A police general has been assigned the responsibility of dealing with police abuses. This is a great tradition in Thailand, where police have also been appointed to the justice and interior ministries to protect their peers against allegations that they have violated human rights. It is the reason that this general was appointed to the commission, and from all accounts so far he has been doing a very good job at this. In other words, the NHRC is now being used as an agency to defend violators of rights and demoralize victims. Apparently the chairwoman does not find this ironic or strange, which also goes to show how little understanding she has of the fundamentals of human rights work, as opposed to human rights theory of the sort with which she might have become familiar at university.
Q. Are you worried about working relations among the commissioners since they have different backgrounds? How will your panel work efficiently?
A. Well, we acknowledge the diversity and we put everything on the table.
AHRC comment: This question might have been put as a joke. The answer certainly is a joke. In fact, the commission consists of four persons from the government and only three from other sectors, one of whom is a businessman who admires the military regime in Burma. None of the members have personal hard experience of fighting for human rights, as did at least one of the members in the former commission. A less diverse group would be hard to find.
A. We have also overhauled the NHRC's working structure, such as reducing the number of sub-committees and splitting up some bureaus to improve the commission's performance.
AHRC comment: The subcommittees were one of the few parts of the former commission where real work on human rights was done. Some of the people on the subcommittees dedicated long hours investigating violations, and preparing and tabling reports for action at personal expense and considerable effort. Scrapping subcommittees is another sure way to reduce the output of the commission and make it less effective.
Q. There is a concern that the new NHRC will be less aggressive and too lenient in cases involving state agencies because it is comprised mainly of former bureaucrats.
A. There are both advantages and disadvantages in having bureaucrats on this commission. The bureaucratic style will change the image of the NHRC from an anti-government or NGO-like body to a softer accommodative mechanism. But the weakness is we will have less access to the grass roots. That's why we need to adapt our solo working style to be collaborative with a networking entity.
AHRC comment: Here the real purpose of assigning bureaucrats and academics to run the NHRC becomes clear. It is in the fraudulent idea that a softly-softly approach to human rights of the sort that has been used for years in Thailand to entrench the status quo is the future for the commission. It signifies a return to old elite habits and away from a so-called anti-government approach associated with non-government organisations. That approach, the chairwoman implies, is not good and not the right way for Thai people, who surely would prefer to have a more bureaucratic NHRC in accordance with the cultural expectations that the elite have assigned to them.
Q. How will the NHRC undertake the significant mandate of filing a lawsuit against human rights violators?
A. The commission will not be acting as a law office, filing individual cases, but will create an environment for concerned agencies to work together.
AHRC comment: One of the things that apologists for the 2006 coup pointed to in the new constitution was that it would give the NHRC the power to file cases in court (section 257, para. 4). Now the new chairperson indicates that she has no interest to exercise this power. Instead her commission will just "create an environment". In the next part of her answer she tries to explain what that means.
A. Through the NGO and grass-roots networking and cooperation with various law enforcement agencies, as well as our own research and academic arms, legal action could be handled by those respective agencies in a more coordinated and effective manner.
AHRC comment: First the chairwoman doesn't like the non-government organisations' approach and implicitly denigrates them for being anti-government in style on human rights. Then she says that her commission will find a way to make them all cooperate together. Here again is the giant fraud that has for years been used by the elite in Thailand, of which the chairperson is a member, to co-opt and emasculate civil society groups and thereby deny the emergence of a genuine human rights movement in the country. The chairwoman is in this respect no more than another part in a desperate strategy for continued elite control of the human rights discourse and agenda in Thailand, against the real meaning of human rights.
Q. How will the Asean human rights mechanism and the National Human Rights Commission work?
A. There are some worries that the regional human rights body might not be strong enough. But I think we should have it first and shape it later. I don't think there will be overlapping areas of work between the national human rights body and the Asean body, which should take up regional issues such as the Rohingya displaced people better than the NHRC.
AHRC comment: Naturally, a hard issue like the Rohingya refugees (as human rights commissioner it would not be right to call them refugees; better to say "displaced people") will not be addressed through the NHRC because its approach is bureaucratic, soft and accommodating. Therefore, it will be left to the as-yet non-existent regional mechanism of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which also will do nothing. Here one of the real purposes of the ASEAN human rights body is clearly revealed for the first time: it is intended as a place for useless national human rights institutions to shift responsibilities and avoid blame coming to national authorities when people's rights are not protected. This can be expected to happen a lot in the coming years, especially in cases coming from the meaningless and irrelevant National Human Rights Commission of Thailand.
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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.