Ultra-royalist nominated as rights commissioner; only the tip of the iceberg

After the names of the candidates for the National Human Rights Commissions of Thailand (NHRC) were revealed, many eyebrows were raised over the nomination of an ultra-royalist with a record of human rights abuse. For many human rights defenders, however, it is only the symptom of a malady that has long rendered the rights commission impotent.

Since the 2006 coup d’état and a decade of political turmoil, Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission, which was founded under the 1997 Constitution, has been heavily criticised for its ineffectiveness in safeguarding fundamental human rights, especially with regard to its silence over the violent military crackdown on red shirt protesters in 2010 and the previous coup d’état.   

Last year, the Sub-Committee on Accreditation (SCA) of the International Coordinating Committee on National Human Rights Institutions (ICC), an independent international association of national human rights institutions (NHRIs) which monitors the performance of national human rights institutions worldwide, downgraded Thailand’s NHRC from A to B, citing the agency’s poor performance and partiality.    

Tyrell Haberkorn, a political science academic who is an expert on Thailand, pointed out “the last two NHRC commissions have had several problems in terms of their independence, which prevented them from investigating human rights abuses. The rights commissioners have been silent about the coup d’état.”

For many human rights defenders and researchers, the fact that a prominent ultra-royalist who has pressed charges against others under Article 112 of the Criminal Code, or lèse majesté law, is nominated as an NHRC candidate is only the tip of the iceberg of bigger structural problems in the NHRC.

Many experts in human rights conclude that one of the deeply entrenched problems of the NHRC is the inadequate process for selecting human rights commissioners.

Sunai Phasuk, a researcher from Human Rights Watch (HRW), said that the inadequate selection process for NHRC commissioners results in the appointment of unqualified people to the Commission.       

“The selection process of the NHRC in a way picks people who do not have solid backgrounds in human rights and who are not independent as commissioners. This results in a lot of limitations of the rights commissioners,” said Sunai.

He added that in fact the selection process of the NHRC commissioners contradicts the Paris Principles on the status of national institutions, which must maintain their independence and transparency.

The HRW researcher added “unlike the first set of the NHRC commissioners, the incumbent NHRC members were selected with little participation of civil organisations and rights groups.”

Pimsiri Petchnamrob, the East Asia Programme Officer of FORUM-ASIA (Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development), pointed out that as with the previous sets of NHRC commissioners, the selection process of the current commissioners was not in accordance with the Paris Principles.

“There were seven people in the selection committee of the second set of NHRC commissioners, five from the judiciary and two from the legislative branch. So, only two were elected by the people under democratic principles, whereas the other five were not, which is one of the problems,” said Pimsiri.

She added that the current set was selected by only five people, comprising the President of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), the President of the Supreme Court, the President of the Constitutional Court, and individuals selected from the General Assembly of Supreme Court Judges and the General Assembly of Administrative Court Judges.  

Agreeing with Pimsiri, another human rights defender who requested to remain anonymous said that since most people in the NHRC selection committee are from a civil service or judicial background, the committee tended to select people with whom they are familiar, and most also have civil service backgrounds.

“I bet it’s even surprising to many people that Angkhana [Angkhana Neelapaijit, a well-known human rights defender on women’s rights and campaigner against enforced disappearance and torture] was selected as a candidate for the NHRC. Many must have thought that all the seats would be filled with civil servants,” said the anonymous human rights defender.

She added “one other problem is that if one looks through the long list of those who applied to be NHCR commissioners, most are people who do not have backgrounds in human rights because many human rights defenders must have thought that they would not be selected anyhow.”

According to Chutimas Suksai, an independent human rights researcher, the selection process of the NHRC commissioners even contradicts Section 8 of the 1999 National Human Rights Commission Act on the selection of NHRC members, which states that private organizations shall select 10 representatives among human rights CSOs and NGOs to participate in selection processes.

“I think the past two sets of human rights commissioners have been selected as a rubber stamp. The selection process does not allow people and private human rights organizations to monitor and participate in the selection process,” Chutimas told Prachatai.

The anonymous human rights worker further said that besides the structural problem in the selection process, most NHRC members also show a political stance on certain issues, resulting in partiality when dealing with human rights abuses related to politics.   

She added “the national rights commission has not been effective in prioritising primary human rights problems over other minor issues, which could be handled by other organisations.”

As for the new candidates to the NHRC, Sunai from HRW said that the prospect of the national rights agency is even bleaker than under the current members whose term of office expires this year.  

“It has gone from bad to worse. There are already a lot of weaknesses of the incumbent NHRC, but these weaknesses have not been addressed. On the contrary, problems with the selection process of the NHRC have been made worse under the current regime,” said Sunai.

“One of the seven new candidates to the NHRC even has a record of abusing others’ human rights when it comes to freedom of expression, which is one of the fundamental human rights,” the HRW researcher said. “The incumbent rights commission has been largely silent on freedom of expression as well, especially on the lèse majesté law.”

Despite all its flaws, however, Sunai still believes that the NHRC must still function. He mentioned that the NHRC should not be fused together with the Office of the Ombudsman as some members of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) proposed earlier, because the functions of the two state agencies are different.

Pimsiri from FORUM-ASIA concluded that in Asia the national rights commissions of many nations go through ups and downs and civil society organisations in each country play significant roles in pointing out the flaws and demanding accountability of the national rights commissions.

She gave the example of the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suruhanjaya Hak Asasi Malaysia) which has become more engaged in human rights issues over the years because of the push from civil society organisations, despite the country’s political restrictions.

“The question is, if we don’t have the NHRC, then what other organisation would we have to file cases on human rights violations?” asked Pimsiri.

Chutimas concluded "the NHRC is a place for the junta or the elite to make sure that the NHRC will not function by extending civil officials' shelf life at the people's expense. The NHRC is important for the poor and underprivileged, thus I would like to see a reaction from people who are using the NHRC mechanism, to stand up and protect a sliver of human rights space."