We wish to share with you the following extended version of an editorial that was published in the Hong Kong based South China Morning Post.
Asian Human Rights Commission
An editorial from the South China Morning Post forwarded by the Asian Human Rights Commission
THAILAND: Diplomacy trumps human rights at U.N. rights council
The recent one-year appointment of Thailand’s ambassador in Geneva to head the United Nations Human Rights Council is a victory for diplomacy over the rights that the council is supposed to uphold, and an acknowledgment that it has not improved on the work of its much-maligned predecessor.
Stung by failure to get onto the council in 2007, the government of Thailand indicated that it would try harder to win a place the next time around. Its efforts have clearly paid off. But while endeavouring to improve its standing abroad, at home the government has persistently undermined the rights of its citizens.
Around a third of Thailand today is under a state of emergency. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people have been held in custody since security forces put down protests against a prime minister who obtained power through a regressive army-sponsored constitution and the courtroom, rather than the ballot box.
Attempts to silence dissent have reached new levels. Censors have blocked or closed websites and anti-government periodicals. A court in Bangkok is hearing a raft of criminal charges against the director of an independent news site who failed to remove comments about the royal family from a web board promptly enough.
Thailand’s own official human rights agency has ceased to meet international standards. It counts among its members a police general, a couple of bureaucrats and a businessman whose only achievement in the field prior to his appointment was to be named in one of his predecessors’ reports as a rights violator.
The new president of the U.N. council is not a rights defender either. In 2003, Sihasak Phuangketkeow was government spokesman during the infamous “war on drugs”. Sihasak described the operation, in which thousands of alleged dealers were extrajudicially killed, as being conducted “within a legal framework”.
Since taking up the ambassadorship three years ago Sihasak has denied the extent and systemic character of rights abuse in his country. The government he represents has not made any serious attempts to follow up on recommendations of U.N. committees and independent experts.
So what has gone wrong at the Human Rights Council that someone representing a state with such a poor record can sit at the head of its table? And what can be done about it?
The council was supposed to be an improvement on the Human Rights Commission, which was widely criticized as politicized and ineffectual. Instead, it seems to have inherited most of the commission’s vices and few of its small virtues.
The council has continued to be politicized. This is partly because the council’s 47 members are elected by regional quotas, with 13 coming from Asia. Although the General Assembly should elect states on the basis of their human rights achievements and commitments, many are getting in through backdoor deals and bloc voting, promising to shield one another from criticism rather than to address human rights problems.
The council has also been ineffective at monitoring and intervening to prevent human rights abuses. A periodic review process is supposed to keep states under scrutiny and aid the council to work constructively with them towards achievable goals. But it is hard to take the process seriously when many members ignore their responsibilities even under legally-binding treaties.
The council lacks instruments to oblige compliance. It can do no more than criticize countries that sign up to covenants but fail to act on them. Even the most egregious violators risk little more than a tongue lashing. Clearly, the council needs more powers to sanction disobliging states as well as to reward cooperative ones.
Another obvious need is for minimum verifiable criteria that candidates for membership must fulfill before they get elected. These should include, for instance, that a candidate has criminalized torture and can present evidence of functioning agencies to investigate and prosecute offenders in accordance with international law.
Finally, the council needs to become much more inclusive. The monopoly that government representatives have on its authority must be broken. Instead of trying to diminish and even eliminate the role of non-government organisations and special procedures, the council needs to open its doors wider to human rights defenders and above all, to the victims of abuses.
Only when people engaged in the struggle to promote human rights on the ground can come together with government representatives as equals, not mere observers, will the council be worthy of its name. While diplomats continue to run the show, diplomacy will continue to trump human rights at the Human Rights Council.
This is the extended version of an editorial that was published in the South China Morning Post on 30 June 2010.
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