Protesters should not 'monopolise legitimacy’, says National Human Rights Commission

Caption: Mr. What Tingsamitr, the Chairperson of the NHRCT, said earlier in August that he will closely monitor the situation. Source: NHRC

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of Thailand has released a statement demanding anti-government protesters to respect Thai law at the same time as they are being arrested and threatened by the Thai authorities. While the NHRC also calls for the government to follow international standards in managing assemblies, former commissioners released a more progressive statement calling for the end to harassment of the protesters.

On 20 August 2020, the NHRC issued a statement expressing concern about the sensitive situation of the protests. The Commission said that the protesters’ demands for constitutional amendments and monarchy reform have caused widespread controversies in Thailand. Since 18 July, the Commission has sent observers to the protests in both schools and public places.

To de-escalate the conflict, it has released an 8-point proposal. Part of the content criticizes the protesters’ demands as “vague” and trying to “monopolize legitimacy”. Elsewhere the proposal demands that the government follow international standards and provide safety zones for protesters.    

“1. Under the constitution and international obligations on human rights to which Thailand is a party, a person shall have freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful, unarmed assembly. But the exercise of these freedoms shall be restricted by laws enacted to protect the rights or freedoms of others, to maintain national security, or to maintain public order or public morals.

The exercise of freedom of expression and assembly which shall be given such protection must not include speech, gesture, or action by other means which are aggressive, contemptuous or offensive, or hate speech so as to violate the human rights of others.

2. According to Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Thailand is a state party, children below 18 years old, who already have the ability to think for themselves, have the right to freely express their opinions over the issues which affect children. These opinions must be considered seriously according to their age and maturity. And even though a child shall have the right to freedom of expression, the exercise of that right must also respect the rights and reputations of others.

3. We request that protesters make demands that are clear, that have reasons that can be explained, that are not vague, that do not monopolize legitimacy for one side only, and that conform to the constitution and relevant laws.

4. We request that protest participants take measures to protect health during the Covid-19 pandemic, because if there is infection from reckless gatherings and shouting, the consequences are medical costs and loss of international confidence in Thailand’s efforts to fight the disease.

5. We request that the state officials use the 10 Principles for the proper management of assemblies designed by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association. For example, the state must respect and ensure all rights of persons participating in protests. Any restrictions imposed on peaceful assemblies shall comply with international human rights standards. The state must facilitate the exercise of the right of peaceful assembly. And the collection of personal information in relation to an assembly must not interfere with privacy and other rights when prohibited by law.

6. In cases where children and youth join an assembly in a public place, we request state officials to provide a safety zone to ensure that these children and youth are not targets of violence whatever the case.

We request that the administrators of educational institutions arrange for schools and universities to be safety zones for students so that they can exchange and express ideas creatively while taking into consideration their appropriateness in the context of Thai society, for example, by setting a particular time or place for expressing and exchanging opinions in an academic atmosphere. We request that they comply with the orders of their organization in a uniform direction.      

7. We request that all parties open their minds and listen to each other, and respect different opinions, beliefs, and faiths, which is an important value of a multicultural society which has long been taught. There should not be any action characterized by incitement to physical and verbal violence such as insults and abuse.

8. We request that all parties adhere to human rights principles and use peaceful approaches to solve problems, listen to the honest opinions of the other side, and consider looking for mechanisms for discussion and negotiation for outcomes which are acceptable to all parties for the collective benefit of the nation and the happiness of the people in general.”

The statement came amid growing concern about human rights violations against protesters. As of mid-August, iLaw said that there have been at least 79 cases of threats and intimidation against civilians by the Thai authorities. Thai Lawyers for Human Rights also said that there have been at least 47 cases of harassment by teachers, school administrators, and parents against student protesters who raised three-finger signs during the national anthem. 

The NHRC consists of 7 commissioners. According to the Constitution, a commissioner can serve for only one 7-year term. The current commissioners were appointed by the unelected senate installed by the NCPO, the junta whose orders are legal according to the current constitution. At the end of July last year, veteran human rights defenders Angkhana Neelapaijit and Tuenjai Deetes announced their resignation from the NHRC in protest against a new regulation which prevented them from receiving complaints directly from the public.

The NHRC was not fully functional for a while because another two commissioners had previously resigned, leaving the remaining commissioners without a quorum to approve important decisions. The NHRC came back to work after interim commissioners were appointed. However, their terms will all end soon in November 2020.  Post Today has reported that new commissioners have been listed and will soon be approved by the unelected senate.

The NHRC’s statement still does not quite live up to progressive interpretations of international human rights standards. According to Article 19’s Principles published in 2016, although it is okay to invoke legality, national security, public order, public health, public morals, and rights of others as legitimate restrictions on the right to protest, it said that the protesters should also have “the freedom to choose the content and cause of protests” and “the freedom to choose the form and manner of a protest.”

“States should ensure…that restrictions are never imposed on the right to protest simply on the basis of the authorities’ own views on the merits of a particular protest,” said the Principle. It also said that “protest that annoys or gives offence to people who are opposed to the ideas or claims that a protest is seeking to promote, or conduct that temporarily hinders, impedes or obstructs the activities of third parties, is never by itself sufficient grounds for imposing restrictions.”

Former commissioners release more progressive statement

One day after the NHRC statement, 6 former commissioners of the NHRC released a more progressive statement calling for an end to the harassment of protesters. The statement was signed by Wasan Panich, Sunee Chaiyaros, Naiyana Supapung, Niran Pitakwatchara, Tuenjai Deetes and Angkhana Neelapaijit. Their statement consists of five demands.

(1) The government and its relevant agencies must respect and protect the right to freedom of political expression and of peaceful expression of students and the people and end all forms of threats including surveillance, spying and judicial harassment through the prosecution of those with opinions different from the state.

(2) The government must solve the problem of ideological conflict in the nation by applying political science principles rather than looking to see who is right and who is wrong and applying the law strictly against those with opinions different from the state, which may lead to conflict, hatred and increasing distrust of the state.

(3) The proposal of protestors for monarchy reform under the constitution should not be used as justification to spread hatred among Thai people which may eventually lead to violence.

(4) The government and parliament must expedite the process of amending the constitution before dissolving parliament. The process should promote participation from all stakeholders including the government, the opposition, and civil society.

(5) The government and the Ministry of Education must take measures necessary to protect the right to freedom of expression of children. Schools must be safe places for students to express their political opinions. They must guarantee that there will be no punishment of children through any form of violence. In the event of any child committing an offence, all children and young people must be guaranteed appropriate assistance in the judicial process.

The statements provoked people to make comparisons on the internet. Since the military coup in 2014, the NHRC has been criticized for its inability to do the job. In an earlier response to growing concerns over violations of human rights by ultra-royalists’ attempts to take pictures of protesters and use them for public sanctions, the NHRC said that “any person or organization witnessing an act or omission of an act that is considered a human rights violation can submit the case to the NHRCT for further examination, instead of accusing each other through the media.”

The NHRC’s view does not seem to comply with General Comment No 37 issued last month by the Human Rights Committee of the UN Human Rights Commission. This General Comment interprets Article 21 on the right to freedom of assembly of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Thailand has ratified.  After noting that protestors have the right to wear hoods or masks to hide their identity, the Comment says ‘Any information gathering, whether by public or private entities, … must strictly conform to applicable international standards, … and may never be aimed at intimidating or harassing participants or would-be participants in assemblies’.