A long way to go for human rights in Asia

A long way to go for human rights in Asia

Published on December 10, 2008

Thailand aims to lead Asean in improving protection, but our own record also falls short

Today is International Human Rights Day and also the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR). When Thailand signed the UNDHR in 1948, it became the boldest country in Asia by acceding to the universal norms that respect human rights. It was the first Asian country to do so. That was a remarkable undertaking, achieved at a time when Thailand, like other countries, had just emerged from the destruction of World War II. Thailand wanted to join the international community as soon as possible. After officially supporting the Japanese against the Allied forces, Thailand wanted to clean up its recent past by quickly embracing the United Nations and other related international activities. International organisations, including their universal values and shared norms, served as a shield for Thailand against the threat of communism.

Today, a glance at the country’s human rights record might lead one to draw the conclusion that progress in this area is still very disappointing. Authorities concerned are still not willing to work for justice. Abuse and disappearances still continue. The well-known case of human rights lawyer, Somchai Neeraphaijit, still unaccounted for, not to mention other recent disappearances involving minorities in the remote provinces of northern and southern Thailand, are examples of this lack of progress.

It is sad that Thailand, which started out as a well-respected member of the international community, and one that supposedly placed a high value on human rights, has ended up this way. The political crisis of the past six months has added to the general perception around the world that Thailand has no rule of law. Time and again our society could easily have slipped into anarchy. Ordinary people are seen on TV being beaten up because of the colour of their T-shirt. It is thus imperative that the new government accord top priority to human rights protection and improve the country’s tarnished international image.

It has been over a decade since the National Commission on Human Rights was set up to protect and promote human rights in Thailand. But the NCHR’s performance has been dismal. The commission could have done a better job if had been a stronger and less dogmatic leadership team; one that was more focused on civil and political rights.

One of the problems has been the emphasis on collective rights, or community rights. Obviously these collective rights are pivotal, but to provide sufficient protection in this area is almost impossible under the current circumstances. New legislation and human rights education is urgently needed if such an approach is to continue, as it involves the rural masses. An increase in the violation of individual human rights, especially in southern Thailand, shows that protection of individual rights has failed. The state security apparatus continues to ignore the basic rights guaranteed by the Thai Constitution and international laws.

Thailand’s human rights ideal should have served as a model for Asean countries to emulate. But the country’s dismal record, as well as its poor political leadership over the years, has literally eaten into the country’s reputation and creditability. This also helps to explain why Thailand’s repeated call for a more liberal and comprehensive approach to human rights within Asean has failed miserably. Only Indonesia and the Philippines see eye to eye with the Thais.

As the current Asean chair, Thailand has been working hard to produce a good terms of reference for the establishment of an Asean human rights body by the end of next year. It is going to be tough because of the grouping’s principle of consensus and the fact that the majority of Asean members still prefer a docile mechanism that pays just enough lip service to the protection of human rights and not much more. They say that human rights protection in Asean should be an evolutionary process. This is the reason it has taken the grouping more than a decade to even establish the idea of setting up a human rights mechanism.

How long will it take before there is real protection of human rights in Asean?

If Thailand really wants to uphold human rights values and standards, our government officials must change their mindset now. It is silly to continue to cite how many international bills of rights we have ratified, because these do not help improve the situation on the ground at all. The efficient enforcement of constitutional rights has been lacking.

For instance, Thailand has courageously ratified the UN Convention Against Torture, but torture practices, especially during detention periods, continue unabated. Therefore, it is futile to talk about human rights protection while these practices go on.

In the field of human rights, action speaks louder than words, and in the case of Thailand, we are hearing a loudspeaker.

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