Reboot for Human Rights Commission or Just Booting Them Out?

Anti-coup activists criticize National Human Rights Commission at a Dec. 12, 2014, awards ceremony.

BANGKOK — All six members of the National Human Rights Commission will likely be removed by the interim legislature in a move proponents say will strengthen the body and critics worry will see them replaced with junta-cozy appointees.

The Constitution Drafting Committee has submitted a bill for consideration by the National Legislative Assembly that would remove all commission members. While the interim legislature is evaluating the measure, it has already garnered mixed reactions.

Porpenh Khongkachonkiet, a prominent human rights activist and director of a human rights advocacy group focused on the Deep South, said removing the existing commissioners before their terms end in 2022 does not guarantee a more independent body, which has been criticized as flaccid in defending civil rights.

“Change is needed, but not through ‘set zero,’” said Porpen of the Cross Cultural Foundation, using a Thai neologism referring to the recent reconstitution of the Election Commission.

The new members would be nominated by a 10-person selection committee then approved by the the junta-appointed legislature if elections have not yet been held. If the replacements come after promised elections, the junta-selected senate would confirm their appointments.

It’s being presented as a fresh start and political reset in the same way dissolving the Election Commission earlier this month. The idea originated in the junta-appointed Constitution Drafting Committee. Their rationale was that the current commission members were not diverse enough and not as capable, as the organization was downgraded at the international level in January 2016 by the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions.

The National Human Rights Commission is a nominally independent body established in 2001 nearly a decade after at least 52 people were killed in 1992’s Black May popular uprising against the military regime in power at the time. It’s status was downgraded last year by the international accreditation body from “A” to “B.”

Charter commission spokesman Norachit Sinhaseni said the process and committee that put in place the current membership were not “as varied as it should be under the Paris Principles,” which set the standards for human rights commissions.

Norachit said the reset is about setting higher standards and qualifications for independent bodies, including the rights commission. He acknowledged that they have been criticized for going too far “to the point where we have been ridiculed that the qualifications are too high.”

Those standards include, he said, a requirement that candidates must have resigned from active membership in a political party for a 10 years to qualify for the job.

Other criteria include having at least a decade of experience working in the human rights field and holding a university degree.

As to who will nominate new members, the selection committee will consist of three representatives from human rights organizations and one apiece from a public health organization, the Lawyers Council and a media association. The speaker of the House of Representatives and presidents of the Supreme and Supreme Administrative courts will also sit on the selection committee. Those nine members will appoint a human rights scholar to fill the 10th seat.

Asked how members selected by junta appointees could be trusted to act impartially and independently, Norachit suggested there would be accountability, though none of those involved in appointing members are publicly elected.

“Then we’re saying that those bodies responsible for selecting will be held responsible by the public,” he said.

The spokesman added that there’s his body of junta-appointed charter drafters could do about criticism their proposal will be decided by other junta appointees, free of public accountability.

“I don’t think we can do anything about that,” he said.


Higher Standards Questioned

On Tuesday, 157 human rights groups, activists and academics issued a joint letter to the charter commission and legislature citing perceived flaws in the bill.

It pointed out that the draft includes no guarantees on gender parity and called for removing health care and public health representatives from the selection committee, saying they are not directly relevant to the commission’s mission.

The group also stressed that it’s not the commission’s duty to defend Thailand’s human rights record in the international arena. Article 44 of the draft law states that the commission must take action “without delay” to defend Thailand if “there exists incorrect or unfair” information about the human rights situation in the kingdom.


Willing to Vacate But Uncertain About Future

Two of the current six commissioners said they are willing to leave their posts if the assembly passes the bill.

Tuanjai Deetes, a commissioner in charge of ethnic rights, said she’s ready to abide by any decision.

“If the rules are changed, I will embrace it,” said Tuanjai, who was appointed in November 2015. “It’s okay for me personally. I can continue to work [in the field] even without the position.”

Tuanjai does have her concerns. She cited Article 24, which bars commissioners from accepting free air travel, accommodation or a per diem from foreign states or foreign NGOs as a hindrance to occupational development for commission members. Tuanjai said the restriction would prevent them from accepting UN invitations to attend workshops and training, which would undermine the resource-limited commission. She said the draft bill also stipulates that subcommittees could only be set up when truly necessary, which may reduce expert participation and consultation made possible by the present array of subcommittees.

Angkhana Neelapaijit, the commissioner in charge of civil and political rights, was likewise critical of some provisions but ready to accept the assembly’s decision.

Angkha said if the selection process happens before elections are held and new members are approved by the junta-appointed assembly, it could lead to doubts about their independence.

“If they want to be impartial, they should wait until after elections,” she said.


Related stories:

Human Rights Commissioner Pledges to Reverse Standing

Assembly Votes to Remove Election Commissioners