Thailand’s human rights agency has been in limbo since September 2006 when the army took power for the umpteenth time.
The National Human Rights Commission was by no means the coup’s biggest casualty. After all, it wasn’t shut down completely, like the parliament and one of the upper courts. But the commission has not fared well since then, and its confused and contradictory response to the military takeover in some ways typified its deeper problems.
Commissioners took dramatically different stands on the coup, its chairman refusing to condemn it, one member joining protestors on the streets, ultimately to be forced out by the junta’s unelected legislature. Some others were gently critical, while a number were neither seen nor heard.
There was also disagreement about whether or not the commission even had a mandate to keep operating, given that it was a body expressly established under a constitution that no longer existed.
These sorts of inconsistencies have dogged the commission’s work for the last few years. Whereas some of its members have tirelessly promoted its goals, others have been noticeably absent. At the same time that some have had their lives threatened for investigating and speaking out about extrajudicial killing and torture, others have campaigned against genetically modified papaya.
One of the reasons for this mixed performance was the manner in which the commissioners were appointed over six years ago. Then, there was little publicity when a special committee, comprising members of the parliament and public, was assigned to look for the right people.
The criteria for successful candidates were vague, and one person interviewed later said in private that he was confused when asked personal questions that appeared to have no bearing at all on his suitability for the post.
Of the eleven commissioners appointed in 2001, a few had firm records on human rights, while a number were academics and the remainder were selected apparently because they represented the same conservative elite interests that later backed the coup.
The human rights defenders then kept on doing what they were doing, one or two of the academics took to the job in earnest, and the rest of the group served as ballast. Now their time is up, and another committee is due to be assigned to select the next batch.
Meantime, the rules of the game have changed. Under the 2007 army-sponsored constitution, the selecting committee comprises three judges, two politicians and two other undesignated persons; no members of the public are invited this time around.
And once the committee is done, its nominees will be vetted in a senate that is only half elected; the other half is appointed.
Sensing the lack of debate about the choice of new commissioners, and perhaps fearing that they will again one day be announced without any real talk about what Thailand needs from its NHRC, a blog has started nominating people itself.
The blog (ใครควรเป็นกรรมการสิทธิฯ) has so far put forward two persons. The first is Angkhana Neelaphaijit (at left, above), wife of abducted human rights lawyer Somchai, who now heads a group dealing with forced disappearances and arbitrary detention.
The second is Somchai Homla-or (at right), previously head of the human rights committee of the Lawyers Council of Thailand, and an outstanding activist in his own right.
These are both excellent choices, but perhaps not surprising. What about some people with demonstrated commitments to human rights that haven’t come from within the field, like the founders of the Midnight University, some hardened journalists, and those embattled environmentalists?
In any event, more debate is needed and concerned persons should speak their minds through the blog or whatever other means they have available, so that the next National Human Rights Commission of Thailand doesn’t end up being just another thing decided upon behind closed doors, about which people can only complain once it is too late to do anything.
A national human rights institution is not a panacea, nor a substitute for other agencies that are critical for the defense of human rights, including a working parliament and independent courts. But a commission consisting of people with a genuine interest in what they have been assigned to do is better than one that is not – and right now Thailand needs such people to get its commission out of limbo and into gear.
See further: Next NHRC may be symapthetic to authorities: Jaran (The Nation)
The first NHRC of Thailand: Some reflections on the 6-year experience (Saneh Chamarik/NHRC) (in Thai)