In Thailand, neither acts of torture nor enforced disappearance are a criminal offence. But an anti-torture bill tabled this week is looking to change that.
On July 8, the House of Representatives’ Committee on Legal Affairs, Justice, and Human Rights passed the most recent draft of the Bill on Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance – the ‘anti-torture bill’ in short – proposed by human rights groups and civil society organisations, moving it on in the legislative process.
Known as the People’s Draft, it calls for torture crimes and enforced disappearances to be codified in Thai law in order to allow for prosecution, prevention, and protection for victims of such acts. Crucially, there is a focus on the accountability of state authorities, and has no limitations on location, as long as the victim or offender is a Thai national.
The move follows the disappearance of Thai political activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit in Phnom Penh last month, which sparked a resurgence of public attention on the issue of torture and enforced disappearances in the kingdom. A long-time critic of the government, he was bundled into a car by men in broad daylight in the Cambodian capital in what many believe to be a politically motivated abduction.
Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, director of the Cross-Cultural Foundation, a civil society group backing the bill, told the Globe of the significance of this law. She said that Thailand has a dualist approach to incorporating treaties into domestic law, meaning that international treaties are only binding if they have been transformed into national law.
“Thailand is part of the UN Convention Against Torture (CAT) and has also signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance [ICPPED],” she said. “[But] according to domestic law, we need to have a domestic regulation in order to implement international commitment.”
The bill was first drafted by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) in 2014 but the process has been subject to significant delays, practically coming to a standstill in 2017 with shifts in the government and political opposition landscapes. At the beginning of 2020, the bill was revived by the Committee on Legal Affairs, Justice, and Human Rights of the Parliament, then chaired by Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, deputy party leader of the now-dissolved opposition Future Forward Party.
Significantly, state authorities would be criminalised for having committed or associated with torture and enforced disappearances under the proposed bill.
“The bill checks the abuse of power by state authorities and is an important step to end impunity,” said Waraporn Utairangsee, human rights lawyer at the Human Rights Lawyers Association in Thailand. “But there are also challenges. We have to prove that it is carried out by government officials and that requires a substantial amount of evidence.”
In addition, the bill calls for universal jurisdiction on these crimes. This is an important caveat as enforced disappearances of political dissidents – in which it is widely believed that the Thai government is involved – have become commonplace across the Mekong region since the 2014 military coup that saw now-civilian prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha rise to power. Wanchalearm was the 9th Thai dissident to go missing since the 2014 coup, and in total, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has recorded 79 cases of enforced disappearance pending investigation in the country.
Currently, enforced disappearances cases in Thailand can only be prosecuted if the victim (the “injured person”) reports the case themselves, while family members can prosecute if the victim is severely injured or found dead. With the new bill, Waraporn explained that the term “injured person” is broadened to include family members, with such parties able to request public officials disclose custody information and call for an investigation even if no body is found. There would also be a 50-year statute of limitations for alleged crimes committed, allowing room for investigations into backlogged cases.
Thailand has seen a series of enforced disappearances in recent years, with Wanchalerm Stasaksit simply the most recent case. Rights groups highlighted the cases of Thai-Muslim lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit, disappeared in 2004 with his wife unable to obtain justice. Pholachi “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, a Karen human rights activist, was also disappeared in 2014 while in the custody of Kaeng Krachan National Park officials. Justice remains elusive six years on.
If the committee stays, the implementation of the bill can be rather effective. However, this is a controversial point, and there might be objections in the House of Representatives
“We should not have anymore Somchai, Billy, or Wanchalerm cases in these modern times,” Pornpen said.
“Both the government and opposition parties have a common interest that we need the law to prevent both torture crimes and disappearances,” Pornpen said. MPs from both the government and opposition party have approved the draft bill so far.
The bill awaits discussion in the House of Representatives and draft bills from the MoJ, Democrat Party, and the Prachachat Party. The latter, a newly formed party, is made up of MPs from Thailand’s Deep South in which the issue of enforced disappearances and ill-treatment of the detainees has been ongoing due to the counter-insurgency movement against Muslim seperatists.
“The likelihood this bill will pass is high,” said Phairoj Polpet, an adviser to the Union for Civil Liberty. “However, it is less certain if the fine-print detailed in this draft bill will remain after discussion in the House of Representatives.”
A key proposal of this draft is the creation of a committee of experts on torture and forced dissappearances he said.
”There is also the creation of a committee that includes government officials and also qualified individuals with knowledge on human rights and experience with forced disappearances and past victims of such crimes to create the action plan and guide policies,” said Phairoj. “If the committee stays, the implementation of the bill can be rather effective. However, this is a controversial point, and there might be objections in the House of Representatives.”
There remains a long journey ahead for the bill to become law, but it is a first step towards finding justice for the victims of torture and enforced disappearance, bringing them out from the shadows and providing them protection from the state many suspect of currently being at the heart of enforced disappearances.
“Enforced disappearances are a crime. The state has a duty to protect the rights and freedoms of all those who are missing. We’re still missing that and we need it,” Waraporn said.