Disappearance of Thai human rights defender cause for grave concern
What has happened to Somchai Neelaphaijit, and why hasn’t the government of Thailand so far been able to reveal the circumstances of his disappearance? Reports indicate that Mr Somchai, who is a prominent lawyer and human rights defender from the south of the country, was taken from his car last Friday, March 12, after it was hit from behind. That no witnesses have come forward to report a traffic accident involving his vehicle points to malicious wrongdoing on the part of some persons. That Mr Somchai is said to have received death threats compounds suspicions about his disappearance.
It is unfortunate that Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra responded to the disappearance by claiming it was due to a family dispute. Although the Prime Minister later qualified his remark, he has not yet made clear what the government does or does not know about the case. In such events, the government is obliged to find out all details of what has taken place within the shortest possible time, and make them public. The Prime Minister has at his disposal the means to discover the truth. It is not acceptable for him to claim four days after the disappearance that Mr Somchai’s circumstances are unknown. Therefore, public demands that the Prime Minister get to the bottom of the case are completely justified.
The draft International Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Forced Disappearance was completed in 1998 after years of hard work, particularly by persons and organisations from countries where forced disappearances have been widespread. The common experience of these countries has been that involuntary disappearances take place either with the direct knowledge of the government, or at least its tacit approval. The likelihood of state involvement in forced disappearances is much higher during times of martial law, and when a particular group of persons in the society is targetted. Mr Somchai has disappeared under these circumstances, as the Muslim community in the south of Thailand whose rights he has been defending has in recent times suffered intense pressure from the government security forces. The persons whom Mr Somchai represents have complained that they have been victims of police torture.
Last year, the Asian Legal Resource Centre, sister organisation of the Asian Human Rights Commission, published a report on ‘Extrajudicial killings of alleged drug traffickers in Thailand’ (article 2, vol. 2, no. 3, June 2003). The report warned that police complicity in those killings would have a drastic effect on law enforcement and judicial procedure in Thailand. Once formed, habits of killing, kidnapping, torturing and engaging in other grave human rights abuses by law enforcement agencies are not easily broken. Mr Somchai’s disappearance and allegations of the use of torture to extract confessions speak to the veracity of that warning, and the hardening of these habits among law enforcement officers in Thailand. This is all the more reason that Mr Somchai’s disappearance must be investigated quickly and thoroughly, and the truth revealed.
Thailand is not among the 134 countries that have ratified the Convention against Torture. Until it joins the Convention and brings it into domestic law, law enforcement officers will feel free to engage in torture and related abuses. There is no justification for this failure to ratify the Convention. Torture is among the most heinous of crimes under international law. Its elimination demands strong state action. That the people of Thailand are not being protected by the Convention against Torture is an affront to their dignity, and an international embarrassment for the entire country.
The government of Thailand must immediately make public all information it has on the disappearance of Mr Somchai, and facilitate an independent inquiry into his case as a matter of urgency. The role of the National Human Rights Commission in investigating the case should also be appreciated and supported, so that it too can quickly learn the details of Mr Somchai’s whereabouts. Civil society organisations in Thailand must also aggressively respond to this incident, so that forced disappearances and torture do not spread further into their society. Above all, they must insist that the government of Thailand ratify the Convention against Torture without further delay.