Thailand at the start of the month acceded to the U.N. Convention against Torture, after years of work by many persons, among them human rights advocates and personnel in its justice ministry; the latter having convinced those in other parts of government that agreeing to the treaty’s terms would not be against their interests.
Torture is widespread in Thailand, largely because it remains nigh impossible to hold police or soldiers legally accountable for their crimes. When over fifty years ago police general Phao Sriyanond, himself an army officer, said that, “There is nothing under the sun that the Thai police cannot do,” he did not mean that the police were indomitable but rather that they were untouchable. His legacy survives today. The former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra pointedly quoted Phao when launching the deadly “war on drugs” in 2003.
Every year, rights defenders in Thailand document hundreds of cases of alleged torture while thousands more go unreported. Public campaigns are limited as victims are justifiably afraid and have few hopes for redress. Not a single accused has been brought before a court of law. Even in the most blatant cases, such as where people have been taken from police stations to hospitals with burns covering their genitalia, the perpetrators have remained beyond reach [see: here and here]. In the south, emergency regulations have placed the army so far outside of the justice system that the victims of its excesses do not even consider complaining to criminal investigators or the courts.
Given the prevalence and severity of torture in Thailand, and the impunity enjoyed by torturers, joining this treaty is an important step that must be backed by the legal and institutional changes needed to give it effect. They include the following.
First, Thailand must amend its domestic law to comply with the convention. Currently, its penal code does not cover acts of torture. The offences of bodily harm it describes are limited in scope, and apply to all offenders equally, whereas torture is an offence specific to state agents (in their official capacity) or others acting on their behalf.
Not only is the government required to change the law, but it must also ensure that the penalties it imposes take into account the very serious nature of the offence. For models in the region, drafters can look to Hong Kong, which prescribes life imprisonment for torture under its 1993 ordinance, and Sri Lanka, which set a mandatory minimum prison of seven years, in a 1994 act.
Second, the government needs to consider how to establish a specialized unit to receive and investigate complaints, gather evidence and prosecute the accused. Attempts in recent years to diminish police dominance of criminal investigation–such as by setting up new agencies under the justice ministry and reforming procedure – have at every point been thwarted or compromised by the same entrenched authority that they have been aimed at delimiting.
Any serious efforts to eliminate torture in Thailand will also be strongly opposed and policymakers and human rights advocates alike will have to consider how a properly trained and well-equipped unit can be established to handle cases and resist the influence of torturers and their bosses. For this, advice and assistance should be sought from relevant United Nations bodies as well as other countries with similar experiences.
Third, much more will have to be done to protect, compensate, and rehabilitate victims. Justice depends upon the physical security of complainants and witnesses. At present, it is incredibly easy for police and other state officers in Thailand to threaten or cajole almost anyone. A relatively new witness protection law [in Thai] does not guarantee prompt assistance in cases of imminent danger. Moreover, even where given, protection may last only a short time, and be offered by the police themselves.
Currently, people who have been tortured in Thailand can be compensated under a general law for victims of crime. However, this act does not take into account the many special circumstances that arise in cases of torture, such as the need for fast and sometimes expensive medical treatment, and long-term counseling for psychological trauma.
Money alone will not suffice, least of all when it may not be paid until years later. There has been a great deal of work on rehabilitating and compensating torture victims in recent years, and there are many experienced and interested groups worldwide to whom the authorities in Thailand can go for useful advice and assistance.
Thailand’s joining the Convention against Torture is a first indispensable step towards eliminating gross abuse at the hands of government officers there. If followed by further measures to bring the country into compliance with international standards, then it may go some way towards eliminating not only torture but also Phao’s ugly heritage.
Useful reading: Rule of law vs. rule of lords in Thailand, article 2, vol. 4, no. 2, April 2005