20 years of Universal Declaration on Human Rights Defenders: The protection yet to be available in Thailand

23 พฤศจิกายน 2018

9 December 2018 marks the 20th anniversary of the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, aka “Universal Declaration on Human Rights Defenders which was adopted at the UN General Assembly and all state parties are obliged to promulgate domestic laws in its compliance.  


This Declaration addresses all human beings who work to protect human rights and proposes protection and support for all HRDs who are engaged in peaceful work. The state and all people are supposed to be responsible for all people involved with human rights protection. 


On 23 November at the Century Park Hotel in Bangkok, Amnesty International Thailand organized a public discussion on ‘From the UN Report to Guidelines to Protect Human Rights Defenders in Thailand’, a part of which was a discussion on ‘20th Anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders: Paths to Raise the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Thailand’


Angkhana Neelapaijit, a National Human Rights Commissioner, said that in 2005, Thailand has received a recommendation from the UN Committee on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR) regarding the protection and investigation on the assassination of human rights defenders including Charoen Wataksorn and Somchai Neelapaijit. In 2016, during the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), Thailand has received ten recommendations from other state parties regarding HRDs and has pledged to act accordingly including the investigation to resolve the alleged enforced disappearance of HRDs and measures to protect HRDs from various forms of harassment. 


“Until now, no concrete measures have been meted out. Worse, in the past three or four years, a growing number of Women Human Rights Defenders have been taken to court; some have almost ten cases. With regard to business and human rights, apart from being sued by private companies, many HRDs have been slapped with legal actions from the authorities as a result of exercising their freedom of expression. All these constitute an attempt to use judicial process to harass and stifle public participation preventing them from exercising their freedom of expression and opinion. The National Human Rights Commission has received many complaints and investigated cases of intimidation against HRDs and recommended to the government and concerned agencies urging them to come up with preventive measures. But there is yet to be any change. In addition, online harassment is quite concerning as hate speech has been used and smear campaign launched as well as sexual harassment against WHRDs.” 


Angkhna proposes that the laws be reformed to allow the Court to use its discretion to prevent the indictment of cases that do not serve public interest or cases filed simply to harass or increase burden for HRDs. The state should come up with measures to prevent any online and sexual harassment. As to enforced disappearance of HRDs, the state should make an effort to resolve the cases and bring to justice the perpetrators. 


 Pranom Somwong, Protection International, with regard to harassment of human rights activists worldwide, it has appeared in different forms. The most common harassments faced by WHRDs include (1) making phone call to intimidate the HRDs and their family, (2) raiding homes or family of the HRDs. Home visits by security agencies often cause panic among neighbors and their family members. And the women could be perceived as committing a legal offence. (3) If the HRDs are government officials, they shall be subject to surveillance and scrutiny and could stand accused for using their working hours or using their position to put pressure on someone.  (4) Phone tapping has been used to monitor movement of the activists. (5) Legal action has been initiated to stop a person from campaigning. (6) If there is vested interest involved in the dispute, the investors might consider offering the activists money or position, if the activists refuse, they would be slapped with a legal case, and then negotiation might ensue. (7) If all forms of harassment have been exhausted and have failed to stop the campaign, assassination could be the last resort. 


“The state should get involved by (1) acknowledging and recognizing the valuable role of HRDs, women and men, and give them assurance for protection and support. Respect for human dignity and the right to personal safety and security of WHRDs must be upheld. (2) Any serious impediments to the work of HRDs have to be removed including Section 44, the Head of the NCPO Order no. 3/2558, the Public Assembly Act and other laws that restrict the right to freedom of expression and assembly. (3) The culture of impunity must stop so does discrimination. The rule of law must be respected, and laws should not be used as an excuse to deprive the public of access to justice. A careful review must be transparently made on any attempt to file suit to harass WHRDs.”


According to Pranom, a number of countries are mulling laws that aim to protect HRDs including Honduras, Mexico, Congo, and other West African countries which are gravitated toward reforming laws and policies to enhance protection for HRD. In Indonesia, there is a special National Human Rights Commissioner responsible for the protection of WHRDs.


Saengchai Rattanaseriwong, a veteran lawyer, with regard to a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP), said that it has been very common now and used by both state and private sectors which are behind large-scale development projects and run into opposition from local community. Most SLAPP cases are involved with not serious charges, but they are filed simply to stop the villagers from campaigning against the development projects. He proposes that the Criminal Procedure Code be amended to allow the Court to have a preliminary review of the merit of the case prior to any indictment and before witness examination. 


“I am not saying that all demonstrations are lawful. If there is any infringement, it then deserves punishment. But the laws should not be abused to serve opportunistic purpose. The villagers who are slapped with such charges should also be aware of the laws and not panic. They could see it as a chance to raise public awareness making more people realize the underlying injustice. Within the criminal justice process, there should be a vetting mechanism to filter out any lawsuits that are filed with mischievous purpose. There have been cases that got dismissed after the indictment. Attention must be paid to this matter to avoid cases that are filed just to harass other parties” said Saengchai.