August 30 marks the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. Thailand has not been immune to enforced disappearances. Over the past two years, two United Nations (UN) bodies, the Committee Against Torture and the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, have expressed concern over the numerous cases of enforced disappearances in Thailand.
Regrettably, past and present Thai governments have done very little to adequately address the issue. They have consistently failed to protect individuals from enforced disappearance, to thoroughly and competently investigate pending cases, and to deliver justice and reparation to victims and their families.
Between 1980 and 2014, the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID), transmitted 89 cases of enforced disappearance to Thailand – the third highest number of cases in ASEAN after the Philippines and Indonesia. Eighty-one of them (91%) have remained unresolved.
Dozens of people are still missing from the bloody May 1992 military crackdown on the massive demonstrations against the government of General Suchinda Kraprayoon in Bangkok. Many disappeared during the disastrous ‘war on drugs’ conducted by the administration of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2003. Enforced disappearances are also a tragic consequence of the ongoing counter-insurgency campaign in the three southernmost Malay Muslim majority provinces of Yala, Pattani, and Narathiwat. Finally, enforced disappearances have often been used to silence human rights defenders, including land and environmental rights defenders, as well as witnesses of human rights violations.
The case of human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit illustrates how Thailand has failed victims of enforced disappearances. Somchai was abducted and disappeared on 12 March 2004. According to eyewitnesses, a group of individuals forced him into a car on Bangkok’s Ramkhamhaeng Road. Despite strong circumstantial evidence of his death, Somchai’s body was never found and, as a result, police never conducted a murder investigation. After relentless campaigns and court battles by Somchai’s wife, Angkhana Neelapaijit, to seek truth and justice for her husband’s disappearance, authorities are no closer in determining Somchai’s fate than they were 11 years ago.
Thailand has not only failed to implement the recommendations of UN bodies concerning enforced disappearances, it has also ignored its own promises on the issue.
During its first UN-backed Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in October 2011, Thailand made several commitments aimed at addressing enforced disappearances.
Thailand promised to become a party to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED) and signed the ICPPED in January 2012. However, no visible progress has been made towards ratifying the treaty. In its Third Human Rights Action Plan, Thailand went only so far as to say that it would “study the possibility of ratifying” the ICPPED.
In addition, Thailand promised to issue a standing invitation to all the UN Human Rights Council’s special procedures – which include the WGEID. Despite repeated requests for a country visit to Thailand since June 2011, Thai authorities have not responded.
Thailand also pledged to amend its laws to be “more in alignment” with international human rights instruments, including with the ICPPED. However, to date, enforced disappearance continues to be absent from the list of criminal offenses under Thai law.
Finally, in its Third National Human Rights Plan for 2014-2018, Thailand pledged to “impose measures to protect members of the public from enforced disappearance.” Whatever measures might have been put in place, they did not prevent the disappearance of Karen environmental rights defender Porlagee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, despite a known history of harassment and attacks against his community by the local authorities. Billy was last seen on 17 April 2014 when authorities from the Kaengkrachan National Park detained him while he was traveling from a village in the park to another location in Kaengkrachan District, Phetchaburi Province.
Thailand is due for review at its second UPR in April 2016. In order for Thailand to restore and rehabilitate its reputation of a rights-respecting nation, Thailand must ratify the ICPPED without delay and effectively incorporate the convention’s provisions into its domestic legislation. It must also issue an invitation for a country visit by the WGEID, and, above all, it must ensure that the cases of enforced disappearances are thoroughly and effectively investigated and that the perpetrators are brought to justice.
Andrea Giorgetta is the Southeast Asia Desk Director of FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights)