More and more international institutions and laws have in recent years been aimed at eliminating the widespread abductions by state agents and their proxies. Forced disappearance is now rightly considered one of the most heinous crimes under international law: on September 23, 2005, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights adopted a new global treaty. The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance next goes to the U.N. General Assembly before coming into effect, whereupon it is open for signatures.
The treaty, which prohibits enforced disappearance under all circumstances, defines the practice as “the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty committed by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person…” This definition explicitly and importantly recognises that involuntary disappearance in countries around the world has taken place either with the direct knowledge and involvement of government agents, or at least with their tacit approval.
Thailand is among these countries. However, the problem of forced disappearance there remains largely submerged. The impunity that the police and armed forces have historically enjoyed across its length and breadth, and in recent times particularly in the south, has effectively stifled public outcry against the kidnapping and disappearance of hundreds, if not thousands, during the last few years. Compliant military and government-controlled media outlets have served to ensure that families of lost loved ones have lacked avenues through which to express themselves, and have been intimidated into silence, aware also that there exist no channels for complaints through which they might see criminal investigations and obtain some redress.
Human rights lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit is one of the few persons abducted of late whose case has attracted some public attention. Somchai had spoken out over the alleged torture of detainees in the south of Thailand in the days leading up to his kidnapping on March 12, 2005. Five police are still on trial in connection with his disappearance. Somchai’s case is both exceptional and indicative of the atrocious situation of forced disappearances in Thailand. It is unusual for a public figure to be brazenly stuffed into a car–as has been alleged–and never seen again. That the perpetrators felt they could get away with this act speaks to the sheer impunity that state officers in Thailand continue to take for granted. The perpetrators would have been aware that there is as yet no independent agency or corresponding law with which they could be properly investigated and prosecuted for their crimes. They would have understood that the system exits to protect them, not the rights of the victim.
It was announced this year that a missing-persons centre would be established under the Ministry of Justice. The Asian Human Rights Commission has on a number of occasions spoken strongly in support of this initiative. However, without a law prohibiting forced disappearance and introducing the necessary measures to ensure that the practice is eradicated in accordance with international standards, the proposed centre will have little meaning for the families and friends of disappeared persons.
The Asian Human Rights Commission urges the government of Thailand to vote in support of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance when it comes before the U.N. General Assembly at the next session, then join the treaty and introduce it into domestic law without delay. To this end, a vigorous public debate is desperately needed in Thailand on the continued use of forced disappearance by state agents, and its significance for the society as a whole. Through such discussion, the brutal realities of enforced disappearance will become known and understood, not only in terms of their destructive effects on families and communities, but also their poisonous effects on the institutions and agencies for policing and security in Thailand.