By Holly Reeves
Thailand has grand ambitions at the United Nations (UN). It wants a seat at the big show, the powerful Security Council, in 2017. But is it qualified for a central role in the global champion of human rights?
Every five years, UN member countries must report to the United Nations Human Rights Council to defend and explain their efforts to promote and protect the rights of its citizens. It was Thailand’s turn for this review last week.
This was always going to be a controversial appearance. Since the 2014 military coup, Thailand has been under the rule of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – the military junta. To the revulsion of human rights groups around the world, central to the rule of this group is section 44 of the 2014 interim constitution of Thailand.
Opponents say this provides General Prayut Chan-o-cha’s government with unlimited administrative, legislative, and judiciary powers, and explicitly prevents any oversight or legal accountability of the junta’s actions.
The problem of balance
Appearances before the Human Rights Council are usually sanguine affairs. According to Thailand’s own understated report, “The current political context in the country has brought about challenges in striking a right balance between the attempt in pushing forward reconciliation, security, national reform and full protection of human rights, and the need to restrict certain rights and liberties of the people (such as freedom of expression and of assembly).
“This balance is necessary so as to prevent actions that will bring about hatred and more social divisiveness, while encouraging constructive dialogue – all of which would pave the way to reconciliation, push forward the reform agenda, and lay a strong foundation toward a successful and sustainable democracy.“ Current measures are needed to control those that would “bring violence,” added the government.
Public assembly has been a particular issue. Unsurprising since massive popular protests has long been the most reliable catalyst for regime change in Thailand, bringing this junta itself to the seats of power. This century has brought the kingdom more coups than full-term governments, 12 in all.
The right to assemble
According to civil rights groups, 1,400 protesters have been arrested since 2014. Thailand defends itself saying its intention is in “ensuring that public assembly be conducted in a peaceful manner and does not interrupt public order and well-being of the people, while respecting people’s right to freedom of assembly.”
These weak justifications just don’t wash, a leading human rights group said. “The Thai government’s responses to the UN review fail to show any real commitment to reversing its abusive rights practices or protecting fundamental freedoms,” John Fisher, Human Rights Watch Geneva director has shot back. “While numerous countries raised concerns about the human rights situation in Thailand, the Thai delegation said nothing that would dispel their fears of a continuing crisis.”
“No one should be fooled by the Thai government’s empty human rights promises”, adding, ”United Nations member countries should firmly press Thailand to accept their recommendations to end the dangerous downward spiral on rights by ending repression, respecting fundamental freedoms, and returning the country to democratic civilian rule.”
For the United States, Jessica Carl said, “We recommend the government of Thailand lift undue restrictions on the exercise of fundamental freedoms, particularly section 61 of the referendum law [used to crack down on all forms of media] and NCPO order 7/2557 [which restricts the right to protest] to allow all Thai people to participate fully in the political reform process, including efforts to produce a renewed constitution.
They should also, “immediately return civilian prosecutions to civilian courts and rescind NCPO order 3/2558 [also political protest] and 13/2559 [granting military officers from the rank of sub-lieutenant the power to do police work].”
She also expressed her country’s concern over the broad powers given to the military thanks to article 14 of the interim constitution, such as expanded internal policing responsibilities. The military has used these self-appointed responsibilities to ban political and human rights focused events and to arrest peaceful protesters, she said.
And the opinion of the US is important here. For Thailand to have even half a shot at getting the rotating non-permanent seat on the Security Council in the 2017-18 session, it will need a ringing endorsement from the permanent members – the UK, France, Russia, China and the US.
A dismal record?
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies said, “If a country’s domestic political situation has an effect on how it is being viewed by the world and how it acts on the global stage, it cannot help but be a factor in considering whether it is fit to undertake a role at the United Nations.
“And needless to say, that domestic political situation has not been pretty in Thailand since the 2014 coup, with military [continuing] to rule Thailand, elections repeatedly postponed, and the rights situation deteriorating.
“Meanwhile, the ruling junta under General Prayut Chan-o-cha is also in the process of drafting a new constitution which critics perceive as an instrument for the military to maintain its grip on power. With this dismal record, how can the Thai military earn the trust and faith from the international community and serve in a prominent position at the United Nations?”
Closing his country’s review, Charnchao Chaiyanukij, Permanent Secretary of Ministry of Justice of Thailand, said 181 of the recommendations offered by other countries would be taken home and implemented.
The most important for a bid to join the UN Security Council, of open, fair and democratic rule, is unlikely to be one of them.