Column: Rule of Lords
Hong Kong, China — This week the Asian Human Rights Commission issued three open letters on the selection of candidates for the new National Human Rights Commission of Thailand. The regional body has warned that if the Senate goes ahead and accepts the seven current nominees then the commission may cease to meet international standards, causing it to lose its status before the United Nations.
The seven candidates have been thrust forward after a hurried selection process about which almost no one in Thailand knows anything. The process began only in March after a long delay. It is set to be completed Friday, when the country’s upper house of military and bureaucratic yes-men will consider making the appointments.
While few people in Thailand know that new commissioners have been nominated, few of the nominees know about human rights. Only one of the seven aspirants, Nirand Pithakwachara, formerly an elected senator under the repealed 1997 Constitution, has practical experience. Nirand has worked with environmental and citizens’ groups on a variety of issues, and was on Senate committees that inquired into rights abuses prior to the 2006 military coup.
The other six include Police General Vanchai Srinuwalnad, who states that he has conducted various human rights training courses but does not indicate from where he has obtained his knowledge on the topic; Constitution Court Secretary Paibool Varahapaitoorn, who claims to have participated in the making of judgments favorable to human rights, even though his role is administrative, not judicial; and Taejing Siripanich, head of a group that does good work in discouraging drunken driving but which has little if any relevance to the job for which he is applying.
The worst of the lot is Parinya Sirisarakarn, an industrialist who was a part of the undemocratic assembly that drafted the regressive 2007 Constitution. Not only does he have nothing to suggest himself to the post of rights commissioner, he was himself named in a 2007 NHRC investigative report as responsible for causing environmental damage in the northeast, where he holds a license to extract salt.
The dirty facts about Parinya only came to light after his name was presented to the Senate. In the meantime, the six days given for comment on the nominees had passed, in which no attempt was made to inform the public about what was going on. Even an announcement that remarks could be left on the Senate website proved bogus: there was no online form provided until the afternoon of the last day before the cutoff date.
These facts also did not come to the notice of the selection committee because it did nothing to verify the details that each applicant gave it. Nor did it bother to interview them, instead just choosing them on the basis of the documents they had submitted. The committee itself seems to have met only briefly and conducted its business by some quick shows of hands. There are no details given in the report that it submitted to the Senate explaining why it chose these seven people over the 126 others who had put their names forward.
The former human rights commission, which has now stepped down to make way for the new nominees, could hardly be described as a success story. It was often out of step with the times as well as within itself, unable or unwilling to tackle the big issues. While the Thaksin Shinawatra regime launched its bloody “war on drugs,” the NHRC campaigned on genetic papaya. When the army seized control of the government for the umpteenth time in 2006, its chairman tacitly supported the power grab. A commissioner who went to join protestors against the new junta was forced to resign.
But among its members were hardworking people with a demonstrated understanding of human rights and genuine commitment to their values. It was these individuals and those working with them in the agency’s subcommittees who kept the commission going, against the odds and despite the vested interests stacked up against them.
The noticeable absence of such persons among the seven new nominees, bar one, places the future of the commission in serious doubt. If indeed these seven persons are passed through the Senate on Friday, the NHRC of Thailand will cease to be anything worthy of its name.
What all this goes to show is that the emphasis once put on the establishing of governmental human rights agencies in Asia was misplaced. The setting up of human rights commissions has done little if anything to address the region’s immense and growing abuses of rights. In some countries, these agencies have been nothing more than cynical exercises in the manipulating of international donors. In others, they have been used to deflect criticism of abuses, rather than highlight them.
From Sri Lanka to South Korea, reactionary forces are now moving against the region’s national rights bodies. Whether or not these institutions have the stamina to carry on with their work depends on the extent to which they can get public support and find suitable mandate-holders who will fight to make their voices heard.
Where the procedure for nominating and appointing commissioners is subverted and defeated and where public debate is denied, as in Thailand today, there is little hope for a future human rights commission. All that can realistically be expected is a human rights joke. Under these circumstances, people will have to look elsewhere for the ways and means to defend their common dignity and advance their shared interests.
(Thai-language documents related to the selecting of the new NHRC of Thailand used in the writing of this article are available at: http://nhrcthai.wordpress.com/).
(Awzar Thi is the pen name of a member of the Asian Human Rights Commission with over 15 years of experience as an advocate of human rights and the rule of law in Thailand and Burma. His Rule of Lords blog can be read at http://ratchasima.net)