NHRC should strive for balance

The two new picks for the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) made by the coup-installed National Legislative Assembly (NLA) raised vital questions about the state's sincerity in championing the human rights cause.

The two appointees endorsed by the NLA are both retired bureaucrats, namely Pittikan Sitthidej, former director-general of the Rights and Liberties Protection Department, and Pornprapai Kanchanarin, former ambassador to the Hague.

The NLA, in a secret vote, dumped the remaining five. These candidates have have academic backgrounds and are heavyweights in human rights advocacy, namely Somsri Harn-ananthasuk, coordinator of the People's Network for Police Reform; Pairoj Polpet, member of Thai PBS' board of governors and secretary general of the Union for Civil Liberty; Jaturong Boonyaratanasunthorn, an expert on social welfare; Boonthaen Tansuthepweerawong, director of the Peace and Human Rights Resource Centre; and Surapong Kongchantuk, member of Thai PBS' board of governors and a staunch advocate of the rights of minority groups.

It is reported that there was heavy lobbying against human rights activists, who are widely seen as government critics, vying for the seats prior to the vote. But it is debatable if ex-bureaucrats are really a good choice for the commission. At the same time, some of the accusations made against the other key candidates are baseless and unfair.

Ms Pittikan was previously reprimanded by rights activists for her support of the law on demonstrations, while Ms Pornprapai's experience as a top diplomat, having retired this year from the Foreign Affairs Ministry, is not necessarily relevant for the new job as human rights commissioner. What the ex-diplomat who may be well-versed in international organisation affairs seems to lack is on-the-ground experience in handling the cases of those whose rights are suppressed, be it forest dwellers, local communities facing bad development projects, the urban poor or political activists, especially those who are chastised under the military regime.

More importantly, it is a fact that the Thai state has a bad reputation in the area of human rights and in many cases it's the state authorities who violate the rights of the people, or resort to harsh and unfair laws to muzzle those with different views.

The country's image regarding human rights has been poor since the military took power in 2014. In September of this year, the UN issued a report that listed Thailand, along with other Asean neighbours among 38 countries that have alarming and "shameful" levels of reprisal and intimidation against human rights activists. Therefore, having two ex-bureaucrats in the job is not really helpful.

Instead, what is needed are people with wide and deep backgrounds in working with local communities, who possess the understanding about -- and are ready to confront -- unfair social structures and make the right move in protecting the rights of the vulnerable, not just the state.

The job as a member of the NHRC, an independent body, requires a type of person who dares to question injustice deeply rooted in the country's social and legal systems, not state officials who submissively condone such flawed structures in the Thai bureaucratic system until they retire from state service.

Ms Pittikan was endorsed by a vote of 149 to 20, with 10 abstentions while Ms Pornprapai received support from 152 NLA members with 14 votes against and 10 abstentions. The candidates are required to receive support from more than half of the NLA, which currently has 240 members.

Under an organic law governing the NHRC in accordance with the 2017 charter, a fresh selection process will be held to recruit people to fill the remaining five vacancies and, unfortunately, those who were voted out are not eligible to reapply. It is likely the appointment of the remaining five will be passed on to the new Senate.

The two ex-bureaucrats may be able to convince the coup-appointed NLA, comprising mostly the men in green and retired state officials, but not the public -- or those who need their help -- of their ability to perform the daunting and challenging task as members of the NHRC.

More importantly, the unfinished selection process, which is already long overdue, creates a vacuum in the work of the independent body for quite some time. Such a delay will deal a heavy blow to the country's human rights affairs.

In fact, the 2017 charter, when compared to the 1997 supreme law, has revised the job description for the NHRC and compromised some of their tasks. Having people with less-than-desirable backgrounds makes matters worse.

The NLA owes the public an explanation for such a dubious vote that appeared by all means not to put the right man on the right job.

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