Thailand's human rights on downward spiral

On August 11, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a statement pointing out the Commissioner was "appalled by the shockingly disproportionate prison terms handed down over the past few months in lèse majeste cases in Thailand".

Specifically, he commented on two separate military courts handing down on August 7 a 60-year sentence, commuted to thirty for a guilty plea, and a 65-year sentence, commuted to 28 for the same reason.

These judgements by military tribunals have set new records for lèse majeste sentences and have been widely reported in the global media.

Crucially, it is difficult to assert that the High Commissioner does not understand the Thai situation as he is in fact a prince from an Asian royal house which has for years trodden a nuanced and intelligent line to promote its own survival in the face of rising Islamic fundamentalism - he is Prince Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein of Jordan.

Spike in lese majeste cases

As well as highlighting another case in March where the sentence was 25 years, the OHCHR also pointed out the sharp increase in lèse majeste cases in Thailand: "Since the May 2014 military coup, at least 40 individuals have either been convicted or remain in pre-trial detention for lese-majeste offences, both under Section 112 and under the 2007 Computer Crimes Act", compared to five people in early May.

As well as increasing severity and a rising number of cases, the OHCHR pointed out three recent cases where the people convicted in recent months "are people with psycho-social disabilities", ie, are mentally ill.

The imprisoning of mentally ill people for word crimes is unfortunately not one of the hallmarks of an enlightened society.

The nature of the military courts themselves is also criticised for failing "to meet international human rights standards, including the right to a fair trial".

The OHCHR points out that observers are barred, ie, the tribunals are secret, and grounds for an appeal are either limited or non-existent. The OHCHR also notes that trying civilians in military tribunals should be exceptional rather than the rule, according to international human rights legislation.

This is a reference to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which guarantee the right to a fair trial, and both of which are ratified by Thailand.

There are excellent reasons for this position, namely that military tribunals trying civilians undermine the civilian judiciary.

This is because they lack independence from the military junta, encourage exceptional and arbitrary procedures that do not meet basic standards of law, and lack actual or perceived independence.

They also lack safeguards, are conducted in secret, typically do not presume innocence, and limit the ability to present a full defence.

The OHCHR statement concludes by calling for those sentenced and imprisoned to be released on two grounds. The first is that they were exercising the right to freedom of expression.

The second is that the Thai lese majeste law is too broad and vague and needs to be more specific if it is to be acceptable in terms of international human rights.

At this point, it is worth stating that Jordan does have a lèse majeste law - though the maximum sentence of three years is in fact the minimum sentence in Thailand.

This deterioration of the situation regarding lese majeste sentences in Thailand is part of an overall downward spiral of human rights.

This fall from grace has been commented on by the US in its 2014 Human Rights Thailand Country Report, which documented awful failings of the system, especially involving migrant children.

In addition, the EU has commented on the case of the 14 New Democracy Movement students facing charges of sedition, and more generally on the Myanmar human trafficking victims and the problem of modern-day slavery in the fishing industry.

UN downgrade and its consequences

However, as the guarantor of universal human rights, the UN is also having to develop a coordinated response to Thailand's worsening rights situation both internationally and at the country level. This includes how it will manage the proposed downgrading of Thailand's National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) from "A" to "B" by the International Coordinating Committee on National Human Rights Institutions (ICC).

There are three main reasons for the possible downgrade: the selection mechanism is neither diverse nor transparent, with little representation from civil society; there is a lack of, or tardy, response to serious human rights violations, including the political violence of 2010; and the Commissioners do not demonstrate professional independence due to their espousing political views while engaged in NHRC work.

The NHRC faces the downgrade at the end of this year unless it improves, but at present this appears unlikely as this year's selection process mirrored that of the previous.

It has also not expressed any position on the May 2014 coup.

This potential downgrade is essentially a vote of no confidence in the Thai human rights situation.

Thailand's ability to express opinions or submit documents to the UN Human Rights Council will be curtailed, and it will not be trusted to report on itself for the scheduled 2016 Universal Periodic Review.

The Thai NHRC will also be demoted to observer status at UNHRC regional and international conferences, and it will lose voting privileges at the ICC.

Thailand is facing yet another disgraceful situation regarding human rights. Moreover, if downgraded it will not be taken seriously at the UN in terms of its aspirations, which include a Security Council seat.

Senior Thai politicians promoting the country's Philosophy of the Sufficiency Economy (PSE), as Surin Pitsuwan recently did at the UN, may also face scepticism.

One basic problem is that the Thai military risks being accused of inconsistency.

The Buddhism-derived 12 Core Values of Thai people personally compiled by General Prayut, introduced in July 2014 and now mandated in the education system from this term, includes the PSE and also promotes tolerance, wishing others well, and generosity. A 60-year sentence does not embody these values.