Interview with Prof. Amara Pongsapich, Chairperson of the National Human Rights of Thailand
Human rights cover one of the focal areas of CPG’s work. Our Magazine regularly reports on events and developments as well as on institutions and individuals working in this field. The following interview with Prof. Amara Pongsapich, Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of Thailand since 2009, informs about her experiences and expectations of human rights work in Thailand.
Q: Prof. Amara, before you took the post of the Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, what were other positions you held related to the field of human rights.
I was a member of the Faculty of Political Science at Chulalongkorn University upon return from my studies abroad from the US. I worked as a lecturer and researcher, and the work I did involved development studies and the impacts on disadvantaged people. My background is anthropology and I worked with disadvantaged people. I became the Director of the Chulalongkorn University Social Research Institute whose work focuses on social development. The work I was doing involved the rights of people and the impacts of government policies on the people. At the same time I continued to teach at the Faculty of Political Science of Chulalongkorn University and became the Faculty’s Dean from 2005- 2009. I was also the founding member and chair of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at Chulalongkorn University. I worked for the Center for three years, directing training courses on peace and conflict resolution. Then I applied to be a commissioner and was selected in 2009. In the same year I retired from the Faculty of Political Science. So the timing was fitting.
Q: What were your expectations for your time in office at that time?
I expected the position to be dealing with promoting and protecting rights of the people. And the promotion aspect would be training and research, along the lines of what I was doing at Chulalongkorn University, which is the model of the responsibility of many human rights commissions in Europe, with focus on teaching and research only. Different to that the Commission here also takes care of complaints, and so there would be investigation on complaints. So those were the two main directives that I thought the commission was involved in. What was little known to me was that we also have the responsibility to report on the human rights situation, both annually to the public, and to report on the different treaties which Thailand had ratified. We are supposed to be producing parallel reports alongside the government reports. Again, that was not too far from the other expectations because it was research and writing, academic kind of work I was used to. But what I did not expect was the political implication of all the work of the Commission. And because of the political situation in Thailand with the conflict being so strong at that time, and the division between the red and the yellow so obvious, our work had to be prepared and carried out with the views of both sides. I found that to be very, very difficult.
Q: How did you experience your work under politically contentious conditions like those at the beginning of your term of office?
In 2010 there were the anti-government protests which eventually escalated. And the government was looking for an institution to monitor the situation and to report to the government. At that time it was very clear to me as the Chair that we, the Human Rights Commission as an independent organization, cannot work for the government. We declared that very clearly, and the government understood. That was the Abhisit government. So, that is why the government set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a separate commission. But for us, we were supposed to be carrying on our own work independently, which we did. We agreed to set up sub-committees to study the different events that took place in 2010 and 2011. As we were writing the report, the Truth and
Reconciliation Commission worked parallel with us, and there were comments from the public all the time regarding our work and our decisions. So, it became very clear that the division in the country put us in the middle between the two sides, and we had to walk a very thin line. As a result our report was delayed because of the comments made by the public all along, and we had to be careful what we publish. And at the end we were strongly criticized for producing the report late. It took three years. The first draft was to be reviewed to be published and the Commission decided not to publish that version and that we had to do much more editing and that was another delay. It took another year. So that is the report for the 2010 event.
And in the past year we again were facing another protest. And we are about to finish the report and we plan to finish the report within a year, before we leave our office which will be the end of June. We have one more month left, so we will have to finish the report on the 2014 event.
All in all, I did not expect these events to take place and that we had to be fully involved.
Q: Now you have been in office for almost six years. How do you see the human rights situation in Thailand during these years?
The work of the National Human Rights Commission involves coordination with other national institutions. So we regularly meet with other national institutions, and my assessment, relatively speaking, is that I feel that we are good. The human rights situation in Thailand was one of the best among ASEAN countries. I could say best, until last year. So, I had no difficulties discussing the human rights situation in Thailand. In terms of the rights of media we were the most advanced in recognizing the role of the media, and also with regards to right to environment, women’s rights, children’s rights, we were okay. We were praised for being liberal and open, transparent, etc. until the coup. Since the coup, the West has been criticizing Thailand for not supporting democracy. They did not use the term dictatorship, but almost. But again, in terms of my assessment, the human rights situation in Thailand is still, I think, at least equivalent to Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, except for the coup and during the time the government used the martial law. But when they used the martial law, they used it not fully. Other countries without the martial law also limit rights. So, comparing with other countries in this region we are not that bad, except for the coup and the image.
Q: Could you mention some specific examples of a positive development of human rights during the last decade?
Take for example the gender issue where we definitely made progress. We have been working on the gender issue since 1985 when we ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The government has been supporting and promoting women’s rights in this field. The women and children issues are quite advanced in our country, and the women’s groups work hard to try to amend the laws to make them fitting with the CEDAW. They succeeded slowly, but succeeded here and there. So, I think the women’s situation as well as the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) issue is moving forward relatively well, despite the fact that the women and the transgender people still have some complaints. But in general we are moving forward.
Another example would be the torture issue and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). Because of my personal involvement I have been observing this issue closely and I clearly see the changes. Before we signed the CAT in 2007, no one really meant to take this problem seriously. The practice of people in the security sector was still authoritarian and suppressive. Since we ratified CAT we have been promoting it. Our Commission has a subcommittee on the South. We are working together with the military command of the Fourth Army Division and introduced CAT to them. At first they had no idea what CAT was all about. But they learned that it is something we are committed to and something we need to comply with and to observe. So, I see changes.
Q: In this regard, how do you see the chances for signing OPCAT?
I still would say fifty-fifty. On paper it is there, the question is when. And this Commission will fully support OPCAT. In fact we want to be the National Preventive Mechanism. We made a proposal and the Department of Rights and Liberties Protection of the Ministry of Justice agreed and we are preparing to establish this unit within the Commission.
Q: How do you see the current status of the human rights in Thailand right now and with respect of the draft charter?
To the first part of the question: Because of pressure from the West, EU, etc. everyone realizes now that human rights concept and practice are here to stay and we have to develop and get into a human rights culture. And I think we are getting there. A turning point for Thailand would be the recognition of the Business and Human Rights, Human Rights Due Diligence, and the UN Guideline on Human Rights Impact Assessment. It became clear that the private sector, the corporative firms have to become involved in the human rights process. In the past they have been ignoring that and felt that they could get away without observing human rights.But because the Trafficking in Persons Report, social sanctions and trade barriers became very effective everyone now realizes that we have to observe human rights. And so I see promising signs.
In fact in terms of the impact of development projects on the people, Thailand had been involving the people and the participation of the public. But the business sector and the government sector have been complaining about too much participation. They still complain, but they have realized that they cannot avoid it. Overall, I think we are on the right direction.
With regards to the Draft Charter in terms of human rights: Actually the 1997 Constitution and 2007 Constitution were two constitutions which fully adopted the human rights concept. And they were good. The question is whether this new draft will keep all the human rights clauses of those two constitutions. We will work to support the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment inclusion of all human rights issues. Again, there are people who feel that there are too many rights in the constitution. That is a comment some of the conservatives have. But I think, since we had it in the earlier two constitutions, not to have in the “third” would be moving backwards.
Q: And how do you assess the insertion of a separate Human Rights chapter in the Draft Charter?
The problem is the way the Charter drafters presented it. We studied the Section II of the Draft Charter which concerns human rights and civil rights. And our position is that there should not be separate sections. There should be only one section on human rights because human rights are for everyone. We invited Prof. Vititto speak before the Commission on this issue and I fully agree with him that the term “civil rights” was not interpreted wide enough. When the Charter drafters translated the term “civil rights” into Thai, “civil rights” became “citizens’ rights”. “Civil rights” should mean rights of individuals. However, what are included in the civil rights section of the Draft Charter are clauses from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which stipulates the rights of everyone, not just of citizens. And so we proposed to merge the two sections. I think, if the Charter drafters want to have a separate section on duties and rights of citizens, they can have that. But in terms of human rights there should not be a division between citizen and other persons.
Q: What are the prospects for human rights work in Thailand in the near future and what role can the NHRC play therein?
I think that the human rights situation in Thailand will be the same if not improve because the people are aware of the concept and the needs and the international aspects of human rights. And anyone who wants to claim democracy has to include human rights in there. So, all political parties will have to agree to adopt human rights, so the prospect for the future is ok. And the role of the National Human Rights Commission will maintain or even improve because the situation forces everyone to look at human rights as one dimension of whatever is happening in the country.
Thank you very much for the interview, Prof. Amara.
The interview was conducted by Dr. Duc Quang Ly, CPG Project Manager.