Thailand’s representatives to the United Nations still cling to the outdated idea that if they turn up at a big get-together and make nice comments about how they cherish human rights, then everyone will think things are fine in the land of smiles.
Not surprisingly, they are unhappy when other people tell a different story. So last March, when the Asian Legal Resource Centre addressed the U.N. Human Rights Council concerning Thailand, they weren’t at all pleased.
The Hong Kong-based group told the council that the police are the top abusers of human rights in Thailand, for which they enjoy impunity. The center did not make this statement frivolously. It has for years worked closely with people in the country on dozens of cases that speak to this fact, and it is aware of and has documented hundreds more. Many cases it cannot publicize because to do so would put lives at risk.
Notwithstanding, the government representative, Sihasak Phuangketkeow, claimed that the center’s remarks were “unsubstantiated.” Although his defense of his country’s record was not in itself surprising, the vehemence of his response was remarkable given the piles of evidence to the contrary which groups have accumulated and presented to international bodies over the last decade.
This week the center had a chance to rebut his claim. In a statement to the coming session of the council it cited the case of disappeared human rights lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit, the disappearances and killings of dozens of people in Kalasin, torture in Ayutthaya and the impunity for killers in the war on drugs as just a few of the most obvious examples to support its point. It could have cited hundreds of other cases without even scratching the surface.
The center also pointed out that in 2005 the U.N. Human Rights Committee, a treaty body to which Thailand is bound to comply, had similar findings about police abuses and impunity, and recommended a range of things that the government could do in response, none of which have been implemented.
What it did not do was interrogate the representative concerning the motive for his emphatic yet false denial of a fact that – for anyone who bothers to look into it – is both incontrovertible and uncontroversial; a fact that even senior police officers privately admit.
One possible motive is that at present the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is busy making its own human rights agency for the purpose of misleading the international community and obfuscating the facts about rights abuses in its region. Thailand’s government has played a lead role in that activity. It doesn’t want anything to upset its image as a responsible global citizen rather than a systemic violator of human rights.
The permanent representative to the U.N. Human Rights Council has been personally involved in the ASEAN project. Perhaps he considers it unfair that he and his colleagues are not getting more credit for that effort.
Apparently he doesn’t see anything ironic about his reinvention as a human rights defender, given that he was a Foreign Ministry spokesman when the government of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was enabling the killing of thousands of alleged drug dealers in 2003.
Another probable cause for the disgruntlement is that Thailand will sooner or later take a second shot at getting a seat on the U.N. rights council. It was stung that when the council took over from the Human Rights Commission in 2006, its bid for a seat was rejected while other Asian states with abominable records, like Sri Lanka and Pakistan, were successful.
The U.N. mission will be keen to redeem itself. It doesn’t want annoying truths to get in the way of its good news stories. Never mind that Thailand’s own official rights body no longer complies with international standards and has been occupied by police and bureaucrats; that the police keep on getting away with murder and threatening anyone who makes a complaint with the same treatment; or that the army is still skulking around in the political background and running the show down south: politeness and diplomacy are supposedly enough to get a seat.
Each country in the world has human rights issues of one sort or another. Those that are mature about them acknowledge their problems and recognize the difficulties in addressing them. They seek out allies at home and abroad who are prepared to work for change through mutual respect and criticism, not by hushing things up and doing closed-door deals, but by putting everything on the table.
By contrast, Thailand’s representatives issue denials and lash out at people and agencies that don’t join in conspiratorial silence over what is going on and why. If they want to be taken seriously, they should start with rethinking their role and altering the way that they work. After all, whether or not they are prepared to tell the truth about human rights abuses in Thailand, someone else will.