(New York) – The bill to revamp Thailand’s human rights commission would seriously weaken the agency and should be substantially revised, Human Rights Watch said today. The Thai junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly unanimously approved the draft law on the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand on August 17, 2017. The bill must be vetted by the Constitution Drafting Committee and the Human Rights Commission itself before a final national assembly vote within 25 days.
The United Nations, diplomatic representatives, and international and Thai nongovernmental organizations have expressed grave concerns about the proposed changes to the commission.
“More than ever, Thailand needs an independent and committed human rights commission willing to stand up to the rampant abuses being committed by the military junta,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Instead, the National Legislative Assembly has rubber-stamped a draft law that will weaken the rights commission, take away its independence, and turn it into a government mouthpiece.”
Although the proposed law contains some positive elements, overall it will harm the commission’s functions and performance, and its selections process and qualifications.
Functions and Performance
The bill fails to safeguard the requirements of competence, independence, and a broad mandate provided for under the international Principles Relating to the Status of National Institutions on Human Rights (“The Paris Principles”).
The bill does not specifically empower the commission to visit police stations, prisons, and other places of detention. This is a critical oversight because Thailand has had numerous cases of arbitrary arrest and secret incommunicado military detention, often involving allegations of torture and ill-treatment of detainees, since the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta took power after the May 2014 military coup.
Reflecting a provision under section 247 of the 2017 junta-backed constitution, the proposed bill problematically requires the commission to “clarify and report facts when there are incorrect or unfair reports on the human rights situation in Thailand.” This clause should be deleted because it would allow the government to pressure the commission to criticize reports by international agencies and nongovernmental organizations on Thailand, transforming the commission into an arm of the government’s public relations machinery and a protector of the government’s reputation.
Under the 2007 constitution, the commission was empowered to file cases with and provide opinions to the Constitutional Court and to the Administrative Court about laws that raised human rights concerns. The commission could also file lawsuits on behalf of victims that involved broader human rights issues. These powers were scrapped when the 2007 constitution was revoked after the May 2014 coup.
The proposed law would allow the commission to file lawsuits on behalf of victims of human rights violations only if the victim were unable to do so. The bill should be revised to restore the commission’s authority to file cases and provide opinions to the Constitutional and Administrative Courts.
The draft law also unnecessarily deprives commissioners of the ability to make full use of their position to improve human rights in Thailand by barring them from receiving any benefits from foreign-funded sources. UN and foreign embassy officials expressed concerns that the government could use this provision to prevent commissioners from participating in foreign-funded programs and training that would improve their ability to address human rights issues in Thailand. The provision should be dropped from the bill.
Selection Process and Qualifications of Commissioners
The Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions in 2014 noted that the Thai human rights commission consisted only of “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 2015, the Global Alliance and the UN Human Rights Council downgraded the Thai commission from a global ranking of “A” to “B,” revoking its privileges to speak on the floor and present its views during Human Rights Council sessions.
In response to this sanction, the bill overhauls the selection process for commission members. The draft law states that it is essential for the commissioners to be chosen in a transparent manner, open to public scrutiny, and with broad-based participation – all in accordance with the Paris Principles. It requires the process and procedures for nominating and selecting candidates to be publicized.
Under the new criteria, commissioners must be at least age 45, have a university degree, and at least 10 years of continuous work experience related to human rights. Candidates must also have knowledge of human rights law or experience in public sector management related to human rights.
While it is desirable for commissioners to have solid human rights experience, it is inappropriate to require a university degree. Thailand has people with the requisite skills and experience in human rights who have not necessarily had the opportunity to acquire a university degree. The age requirement is also an unnecessary barrier to qualified younger candidates. Both the education and age requirements should be excised from the bill.
The selection committee for commissioners is broader and more inclusive than the current process. The new committee will consist of the presidents of the Supreme Court, Supreme Administrative Court, and House of Representatives; the House opposition leader; three representatives from nongovernmental human rights organizations; one representative from the Lawyers Council of Thailand, the medical and public health profession, or the media; and one from higher education institutions offering human rights programs.
However, the bill says the commission can operate without the representatives of nongovernmental human rights organizations if the selection committee delays their appointment. This provision gives the government unnecessary leeway to keep human rights groups off the selection committee and should be removed.
“The bill needs to be taken back to the drawing board to fix the serious errors that will erode, not empower, Thailand’s human rights commission,” Adams said. “The commission needs to be able to stand as an independent bulwark against the further downhill slide of human rights in Thailand.”