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  5. A New Political Priority: The Need for an Effective National Human Rights Commission in Thailand

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FOCUS September 1996 Volume 5

A New Political Priority: The Need for an Effective National Human Rights Commission in Thailand

Ian Hamilton
Coordinating Committee of Human Rights Organizations in Thailand

As Thailand's politicians engage in a new round of bargaining over the future of the country, it is doubtful that they will be able to put aside their own interests to represent the aspirations of the people. How quickly it appears that Thailand's politicians have forgotten the people's sacrifices made in May 1992 in the names of democracy and freedom. While the "May Events" may have returned control of the government to the elected politicians, it should also be remembered that the restoration of democracy was also accompanied by demands for the implementation of effective measures to ensure the future protection of human rights. One of the many important measures initiated after the "May Events" was a cabinet resolution by the Anand Panyarachun government calling for the creation of a national human rights mechanism. Regrettably four years later, politicians remain preoccupied with the struggle for power and the Thai people are still without any effective national institution to protect their human rights.

Frustration at the inability of Thailand's current political institutions to reflect the aspirations of the people, including the desire for human rights protection, has contributed to the current debate on political reform. However, the creation of effective political institutions will not be enough to safeguard human rights in Thailand. Even in well-established and supposedly "healthy" democracies, violations of human rights are common and the rights of marginalized groups need protection against the will of the majority. Many countries, at various stages of social and economic development, have model for the promotion and protection of human rights. Therefore, regardless of the outcome of the political reform process and the current struggles for power, Thailand's political leaders should recognize the urgent need to establish an independent and effective national human rights commission.

Why is a National Human Rights Commission Needed in Thailand?

The establishment of a national human rights commission should be a priority in Thailand for a number of reasons. Existing institutions, including parliament and the courts, have proved ineffective in stemming the tide of human rights abuses throughout the country. While the media and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have an important role to play, they do not have the power or resources to ensure the full promotion and protection of human rights. Moreover, the promotion and protection of human rights is ultimately the responsibility of national governments. In this way, the establishment of a commission can be seen as an indication of the government's sincerity and commitment to uphold human rights. This is particularly true in light of the government's stated intention to ratify the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Without an institution focusing exclusively on human rights, who will ensure that the rhetoric of the ICCPR is translated into reality in Thailand?

While the constitutional rule was restored and elections to parliament have taken place twice since 1992, experience has shown that the existence of a functioning parliament is not enough to guarantee that human rights will be respected. Civilian governments are as capable of committing abuses or allowing them to happen as their military counterparts. A commission, thus, fill an invaluable role by acting as monitor of the government's human rights performance, promoting greater human rights awareness and helping to hold governments accountable for abuses that take place.

In Thailand, a commission is also needed because the justice system has had difficulty in dealing effectively with human rights cases. For a variety of reasons, those responsible for violating human rights are rarely prosecuted successfully. The responsibility for investigating such cases lies with the police. Problems and conflicts of interest naturally arise, therefore, when it is members of the police who are being accused of human rights abuses. In cases involving influential business or political interests, an impartial investigation is extremely difficult. Furthermore, there are insufficient safeguards built into the system to guarantee that the subsequent prosecution and trial of human rights cases are free from political influence. The commission model, on the other hand, allows for sufficient safeguards to ensure the commission's independence and allow for the impartial investigation and resolution of human rights complaints regardless of whom is allegedly responsible.

Even in countries where are fewer concerns about the impartiality of the administration of justice, governments are discovering that the courts are a cumbersome and expensive process. In fact, the bureaucratic nature and high costs associated with courts in general often mean that they are inaccessible to a large proportion of the population. A commission, on the other hand, offers an alternative form of resolving human rights disputes. The procedures of commissions are usually much less formal than those of courts, making them less intimidating to the complainants and allowing for a much cheaper and speedier resolution of human rights complaints. Most commissions are also endowed with the power to conciliate complaints which allows them to find equitable solutions, thereby avoiding the cost and lengthy delays associated with the courts.

In the Thai context, it is perhaps in this last role, as an alternative dispute resolution mechanism, that a national human rights commission could make its most valuable contribution. A large number of human rights violations these days involve disputes between communities and government related to development and competition over local resources. These cases involve many complicated legal issues and human rights principles which are often beyond the capacity of the existing institutions to solve. The current government's failure to adequately address the various problems presented in a workshop called Forum of the Poor recently-held in Thailand underscores this point. Efforts to find solutions have gotten lost in the political process where the influence of the rich greatly outweighs the rights of the country's poorer citizens. In contrast, a commission with the power to conciliate conflicts would be able to investigate complaints and arrive at an equitable solution free from outside influence and based on relevant human rights standards.

While there is no doubt that a national human rights commission has tremendous potential, it can only match this potential if it is invested with a broad mandate, independence and sufficient powers to carry out its functions. Without such a mechanism to resolve human rights complaints in Thailand, the frustration of the victims will only increase, creating he potential for more serious abuses of human rights and leading possibly to greater political instability. In contrast, a national human rights commission capable of effectively addressing some of the serious human rights conflicts within Thai society in an impartial and equitable manner would be in a position to enhance social justice and reinforce political stability. Given this potential, Thailand's political leaders should join with the people to make the creation of a national human rights commission a national priority.

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