Having another go at a UNHRC seat
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Having another go at a UNHRC seat

Pro-democracy protesters campaign on ending enforced disappearance. A law against torture and forced disappearances was promulgated in February this year after years of delay. (Photo: AFP)
Pro-democracy protesters campaign on ending enforced disappearance. A law against torture and forced disappearances was promulgated in February this year after years of delay. (Photo: AFP)

Thailand is planning to be a candidate in the next round of elections for the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), with voting on the matter due at the UN General Assembly in 2024 for a seat in 2025-2027. What might be the reasonable expectations for this and what might be an appropriate strategy for the nation to be sufficiently self-prepared?

In 2014, when Thailand last vied for a seat at the same UN body, it failed. This was partly because of the human rights situation at home and partly because of political ambivalence. Human rights are not a standalone concern but rather they intersect with democratic aspirations, peace and sustainable development. Recurrent coups and intermittent subterfuges undermining democratic rule stymie not only the image of the country but also the response of key members of the international community regarding the country's candidacy.

The prevailing atmosphere at present is that the country recently enjoyed free and fair elections. This is considered a "plus" for international recognition. Yet there remain grey areas of concern. The process of selecting a prime minister is impeded by those subterfuges and this issue is still unresolved.

Another test is the potential return of a former prime minister who was ejected by a coup in 2006 and then encircled by criminal cases against him. The validity of those cases is open to debate, especially if they are tested against the principles of fairness and the international rule of law, which demand the genuine independence of the judiciary.

Regrettably in Thailand, the quest for justice often suffers from political seepage and legitimised incapacitation. Even now, the nation's standing in the global rule of law index is not high: in 2022, it ranked 80 out of 140 countries, with Suriname in South America placed higher.

A judicious strategy for the future is to address these anomalies by showing a real commitment to a whole range of human rights and democratic practices.

A catalytic signal from the apex of the system can also ensure more space for fair play and fair rules, with checks and balances against any potential abuses of power.

On the human rights front, however, the record remains mixed. The country fares well in regard to economic, social and cultural rights, but it falters on civil and political rights.

A laudable example of the former is the (almost) universal health care system which was introduced two decades ago, enabling the poor and underprivileged to access health services at little or no cost. A Constitutional Court case that helped to reform the law on abortion has also been well received. Today, women have a window of 20 weeks to terminate their pregnancy legally.

Another well-received piece of legislation is the Gender Equality Law, which has enabled discrimination to be better tackled, such as to enable transgender people to dress in accordance with their affirmed gender. However, the law still harbours a negative exception which justifies discrimination in the form of religion and national security.

There have been major snags along the way. The lacunae are clearly identified by the monitoring of three mechanisms linked with the UN: the human rights-related treaties and their committees, such as the Human Rights Committee; the HRC's Universal Periodic Review (UPR); and the vetting offered by UN Special Procedures (such as Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups on human rights themes and on specific countries).

Thailand is now a party to seven out of nine core international human rights treaties, ranging from women's rights to children's rights, the rights of persons with disabilities, the prohibition of torture, the elimination of racial discrimination, civil and political rights, and economic, social and cultural rights.

Given that the country has now enacted a law against torture and enforced disappearances, it should expeditiously ratify the convention against enforced disappearances as the eighth treaty. Ratification of the ninth and last remaining treaty -- on the rights of migrant workers -- needs to be given serious consideration.

Another welcome development is the potential withdrawal of the last reservation which Thailand entered to limit its commitment under the Convention on the Rights of the Child -- or Article 22 on child refugees.

The full range of rights will thus be guaranteed to children who seek refuge in Thailand. However, the recent (unjustified) push back of 126 Myanmar children who had enjoyed access to education in Thailand illustrates the need for sustained vigilance against malpractice which counter the spirit of human rights.

With regard to the UPR, Thailand has been peer-reviewed three times in the HRC, most recently in 2021. It accepted 218 recommendations from other countries and "take(s) note" of 60 recommendations. In substance, the latter implies non-acceptance.

Those 60 recommendations epitomise the core weaknesses of how human rights have been implemented in the country, ranging from the inadmissible prosecution of children under the lese majeste law and emergency decree, to injustices due to criminal defamation, the death penalty, and inordinate constraints on freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly. The new government should address these loopholes which should not be obscured by the "take(s) note" rubric. Future reporting and pledges from the country should counter this eyesore with foresight.

Finally, although the country has issued a standing invitation to UN Special Procedures, in reality, it very rarely receives such visits. The most recent was in 2018 by the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights. Before that, there were only three official visits by UN Special Rapporteurs, namely, on human rights defenders, trafficking, and water-cum-sanitation. The visits were of a rather staccato nature, replete with local hiccoughs! There could be a "recycling" of these in future.

A welcome innovation would be to open the door to at least one or two of these monitors per year, varying between mandates on civil and political rights, on the one hand, and economic, social and cultural rights, on the other.

There might even be joint visits by several mechanisms, such as the Special Rapporteurs on the Environment and on Climate Change, personifying this country's more strategic outlook towards the universal kaleidoscope.

Vitit Muntarbhorn

Chulalongkorn University Professor

Vitit Muntarbhorn is a Professor Emeritus at the Faculty of Law, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand. He has helped the UN in a number of pro bono positions, including as the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography; the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; and the first UN Independent Expert on Protection against Violence and Discrimination based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. He chaired the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and was a member of the UN COI on Syria. He is currently UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Cambodia, under the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva (2021- ). He is the recipient of the 2004 UNESCO Human Rights Education Prize and was bestowed a Knighthood (KBE) in 2018. His latest book is “Challenges of International Law in the Asian Region”

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