A leading international human rights group released a report on Thailand a couple of weeks ago. The report was accurate, yet it said nothing new. The contents were unoriginal. The recommendations were predictable: that the government should join international treaties, make new domestic law, investigate and prosecute perpetrators of abuse, compensate victims, support human rights defenders and cooperate with the United Nations.
These are all good things to recommend. The problem is that they made no contribution to the debate on human rights in Thailand. They could have been written about any country by anybody sitting anywhere. What government shouldn’t comply with international law? Which perpetrators shouldn’t be prosecuted? What more can and must be said?
International organizations based in London, Geneva or New York have proved inadequate for the task of assessing and reporting on the increasingly complex human rights problems across Asia. Shallow diagnoses, spotty campaigns and oversimplified remedies have contributed little and sometimes caused harm.
In this respect, these groups have come to resemble the World Bank. The bank stands accused of having generic prescriptions for economic and social problems written out in advance: it concocts symptoms to match its medicine, invariably with unimpressive results. Similarly, international groups have remained bound to superficial descriptions and customary solutions to human rights problems.
Improved reporting depends upon the ability and willingness of rights groups to obtain a deeper understanding of particular obstacles to the rule of law in specific countries and to articulate them as part of the global debate on human rights without oversimplification.
This requires a completely different style of human rights work. The typical international group compiling a report sends an interviewer now and then to gather and narrate some short stories. By contrast, effective and meaningful human rights work requires intensive routine contact with victims and their families. It calls for neither interviewer nor interviewee, only close collaborators.
In Thailand, the case of abducted human rights lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit is a good example of such work in practice.
Somchai was pulled from his car by the police in Bangkok on 12 March 2004 and never seen again. His remains still have not been recovered.
From the start, local human rights defenders were concerned to work closely with his family. Together they resolved that no matter what, they would not let Somchai be forgotten, like so many other victims of abduction and killing in Thailand.
When the trial of five police accused in connection with the incident opened it attracted lots of attention. International groups sent observers for a few hearings, but the courtroom soon emptied out after that. Some local and regional partners understood their role differently and came every day for the three months of hearings. They were not there only as a symbolic gesture. They also wanted to understand in detail how and why the police abduct and kill people in Thailand and what, if anything, the courts can do about it. Through their presence in court and growing rapport with the family, work on the case was deepened, expanded and used to inform discussion and activities on many other forced disappearances in Thailand. At the same time, Somchai’s wife Angkhana herself grew into an outstanding human rights advocate.
There is a world of difference between this sort of human rights work and the World Bank approach. The problems of human rights in Thailand brought to the surface through close and constant involvement in just one case are of far greater worth than the entire contents of yet another orthodox international report.
Merely condemning abuses and making recommendations without detailed study and explanation of why violations occur and what can be done about them is futile. Human rights organizations that fail to recognize this and improve their standards of work are facing redundancy. For their failure, so too are the very international standards that they purport to uphold.
Somchai Neelaphaijit homepage: http://campaigns.ahrchk.net/somchai/