Why Thailand is not taken seriously on rights issues

opinion April 03, 2017 01:00

By Kavi Chongkittavorn
The Nation

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Long before the concept of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) existed, which gave a new meaning to the duties and responsibilities of states and individuals to prevent inhuman acts of all kinds, Thailand has long shown goodwill and humanitarian gestures, without attaching any label to those deeds, throughout its modern history. 

In the late 1920s-30s, for instance, Thailand hosted revolutionary leaders from Southeast Asia fighting for independence from their Western colonial masters. As the only independent nation in the region, the country obliged without any pressure.

Fast forward to the end of the Vietnam war: Thailand sheltered millions of Indochinese refugees on its eastern border with make-shift camps stretching several kilometres along its Thai-Cambodian border and other locations. It took nearly three decades, from the late 1970s to the 1990s, before the 2-million-plus refugees found proper places to stay. At the time, ideological divisions between communist and non-communist nations was intense. But as a country that believes in reincarnation and compassion, the Good Samaritan virtues in Thailand have remained intact. Its cultural preponderance also plays a part in dictating the government policy to welcome those seeking refuge, without pondering about the aftermath. 

One would have thought that after all these years of engaging with cross-border displaced persons, asylum-seekers, refugees and most recently what we know as regular and irregular migrant workers, Thailand would have learnt a few lessons to ameliorate policy implementation and overall attitude. Wrong. Thailand still does not have any intention to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention. The policymakers, especially in the Ministry of Interior and security agencies, think there is no need for the country to accede to the convention because it would not alter the long-standing practices in sheltering those who seek them anyway. The international community and human rights organisations could go on criticising Thailand for its substandard humanitarian assistance.

Thailand hit the global news headlines for several weeks when the Navy reportedly pushed back nearly 100 boat people from the Indian Ocean, while the country has continued to facilitate the passage of thousands of North Korean asylum-seekers coming through Chiang Saen district in northern Thailand since 2000. This kind of policy contradiction and veiled “hypocrisy” is actually Thailand’s trademark in dealing with humanitarian issues. 

Another case in point: In the past two and half years, the government has tried with some degree of success to improve the working conditions of millions of migrant workers from neighbouring countries by modernising labour-related and fishery-related laws and prosecuted police and officials involved in wrongdoings. Furthermore, some of the Thai trawler owners and the owners of canned factories, who were infamous practitioners of modern slave labour, were also put behind bars.

Indeed, the country’s treatment of refugees and migrant workers, coupled with the democratic struggle since the 1973 uprising, which culminated in a colourful and bloody expression of political convictions, should serve as a good rationale to understand the country’s domestic behaviour related to the protection of human rights and other atrocities. It also translates as the official attitude towards the R2P. Since 2005 when these encompassing principles came into being, successive Thai governments did pay attention to them, sometimes superficially. After all, the chief of the R2P drafting team was former prime minister Anand Panyarachun. It was through personal ties and respect as well as his stature in Thai society that the R2P has been kept alive in the hearts and minds of Thai officials, especially among the law enforcers. 

Now, it is the job of Surin Pitsuwan, former foreign minister and secretary-general of Asean, to help with the public relations for the R2P. He headed a high-level panel appointed by the UN in 2014 to mainstream the R2P so that the international community, especially Southeast Asia, will understand and encourage each government to adhere to and practice the R2P norms.

Strange but true, Thailand should have been at the forefront as an R2P implementing country. 

After the UN introduced the concept of human security in the early 2000s, Thailand went into overdrive immediately creating the Ministry of Human Security and Social Development, the first in the world. Till today the ministry has not linked the R2P with its overall objectives. Pranee Tiparat, a Thai expert on R2P, lamented that Thailand still does not have a focal point to encourage dialogue on the R2P among Thai stakeholders.

In a nutshell, the R2P principles state clearly that governments have duties and responsibilities to protect their citizens from any kind of rights abuse. 

Obviously, there are plenty of rights abuses committed by the states and their auxiliaries throughout the world, but the R2P is specifically aimed at the so-called mass atrocities such as genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. 

Doubtless, when the UN Security Council (UNSC) was faced with the crisis in Libya in 2011, the R2P was put to test. All the UNSC members, for the first time, agreed to back Resolution 1973 authorising the UN to provide assistance to resolve the crisis, including imposing a no-fly zone. Since then, no UNSC decision was made utilising the R2P principles.

Within the region, the Asean members should be in a good position to implement the R2P norms. First of all, the principles of the Asean Charter are on the same page as the R2P norms, especially when it comes to promotion of good governance, rule of law, democracy and transparency. Noel Morada, who is heading the Asia-Pacific Centre of R2P, aptly said that the R2P is a friend of sovereignty, not its enemy. 

“Any country that practises the R2P will become more respectable and be praised,” he said.

Vittit Muntrabhorn, Thailand’s foremost international law expert, echoed the same sentiment. He has repeatedly urged Thailand to sign all treaties related to protection of human rights. It was odd, he observed, that Thailand, which is now leading the international endeavour to ban nuclear weapons from the world, would be reluctant to implement the R2P norms.

Thailand has a chequered history of accession to international laws and treaties due to conservative lawmakers at home. Recently, Thailand has signed the International Convention against Enforced Disappearance and ratified the Convention against Torture. But human rights organisations cried foul that the country has yet to amend local legislations. Thailand now has the world’s No 1 record of enforced disappearance cases – 82. 

Since 1992, there has been no progress on these victims. Strange but true, other countries with a much larger number of disappearances than Thailand, have at least been able to conclude whether these victims were dead or not. In the cases in Thailand, there is no trace, no progress. 

This kind of inconsistency and recalcitrance has really damaged Thailand’s international reputation and standing. Everything the Thai government has done, especially those related to human rights, is often half-baked. Such an attitude is pretty widespread. That helps explain why Thailand has not been taken seriously by the world community.

It is about time we add a new context to our behaviour. Based on our deep cultural roots and compassion, we should be more rule-based, specific and committed to international norms and practices without hinging on the prevailing sentiment. 

Thailand can be a good example to emulate regarding the respect of human rights and the implementation of R2P norms.