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Thailand: Keep Independent Rights Commission

Plan to Merge With Ombudsman Would ‘Gut’ Rights Agency

(New York) – Thailand’s military-installed Constitution Drafting Committee should scrap a proposal to merge the national human rights commission with the ombudsman’s office, Human Rights Watch said today. The military-appointed constitution drafters’ plan would gut the national human rights agency and pave the way for further repression. The new constitution should instead ensure the existence of an independent and impartial national rights agency.

On January 30, 2015, Bawornsak Uwanno, head of the Constitution Drafting Committee, announced that the committee had adopted language in the draft constitution to merge the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the Office of the Ombudsman of Thailand into one body to be called the Office of the Ombudsman and Human Rights Protection. Bawornsak claimed the NHRC and the Ombudsman have similar functions so they should be merged to enable people to file complaints while reducing operational costs.

“Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission and Ombudsman serve very different purposes and shouldn’t be merged,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Since the May 2014 military coup, Thailand has been a human rights disaster that needs an independent National Human Rights Commission to hold the junta accountable – now more than ever.”

According to the Constitution Drafting Committee’s proposal seen by Human Rights Watch, the proposed agency will comprise 11 commissioners, selected in a closed and unaccountable vetting system by the Thai senate. The proposal states that the commissioners should be persons “having apparent knowledge and experiences in the protection of rights and liberties of the people, having regard also to the participation of representatives from private organizations in the field of human rights.” However, the committee failed to engage in serious consultations with civil society about these changes and any measures to ensure the selection of independent and qualified human rights commissioners.

The Constitution Drafting Committee not only failed to recognize the very different mandates of the NHRC and the Ombudsman, but also has not taken into account past criticisms about the lack of transparency and inclusiveness in the selection of the current seven NHRC members. In 2009, the screening committee, consisting of five senior judges and the president of the parliament, chose seven candidates (out of a pool of more than 100 candidates) in a closed meeting that left no channel for public comment. The senate then effectively rubber-stamped the committee’s decision. As a result, the existing commissioners lack diversity, human rights experience, and a demonstrated understanding of human rights.

“Instead of making a weak human rights agency even weaker, the Constitution Drafting Committee should be seeking ways to ensure a broad-based, effective, and independent membership,” Adams said.

The Principles Relating to the Status of National Institutions on human rights (“The Paris Principles”), which were adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993, state: “The composition of the national institution and the appointment of its members, whether by means of an election or otherwise, shall be established in accordance with a procedure which affords all necessary guarantees to ensure the pluralist representation of the social forces (of civilian society) involved in the protection and promotion of human rights.”

The International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights issued a report on December 31, 2014, pointing out that the NHRC is composed of only “officials from a very small number of public institutions, with no clear representation, or a requirement for consultation with key stakeholder groups or civil society.” In addition, the report also questioned the NHRC’s independence and credibility, saying that “staff members of the NHRC were displaying publicly their political affiliations whilst undertaking official functions.”

The International Coordinating Committee report also noted with concern the significant delays in the NHRC’s investigations of serious human rights issues, including violence and abuses related to the 2010 political confrontations between the government of then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship – the “Red Shirts” – and the 2013 uprising of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee against the government of then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Based largely on concerns about the commissioners’ selection process and performance, the International Coordinating Committee recommended a downgrade in the ranking of the NHRC to “B” status, which would cause the NHRC to lose privileges to present views at the UN Human Rights Council.

“The Constitutional Drafting Committee’s merger idea has the potential to make the international downgrade of Thailand’s human rights commission a permanent one,” Adams said. “If adopted, the new body is unlikely to play any sort of serious rights protection role and would lose all international standing and credibility.”

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