COMMITTEE ON ELIMINATION OF RACIAL DISCRIMINATION EXAMINES REPORT OF THAILAND
10 August 2012
The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination today concluded its consideration of the combined initial to third periodic report of Thailand on how that country is implementing the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Introducing the report, Pithaya Jinawat, Director General of the Department of Rights and Liberties Protection at the Ministry of Justice of Thailand, said as a centuries-old multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society, the challenges in building a society based on respect and tolerance were not unfamiliar to Thailand. The Thai people lived together in peace and harmony in an open society where one could often see churches, temples and mosques located in close vicinity. Thanks to its strong economy, substantial investments had been made to benefit the entire population, including a universal health care system and education for all, with no discrimination between Thai and foreign nationals. Challenges remained with regard to the southern border provinces, overcoming language, cultural and geographical barriers, and improving the understanding of both Government officials and the public of the human rights of various groups in the country.
During the discussion, Experts focused on the human rights situation of Muslims in the southern provinces, particularly displaced persons from Myanmar and Bangladesh, and other ethnic minorities living in Thailand, including vulnerable groups such as women and children. The situation of stateless people, migrant workers and the issue of human trafficking were also raised. Questions were also asked on the rights of indigenous peoples living in forests in Thailand; sexual abuse by Western tourists; and whether Buddhism had been declared the official religion of the country, and if that was so, how did it affect non-Buddhists, particularly if they worked for the Government?
In initial concluding remarks Yong’An Huang, Country Rapporteur for the report of Thailand, thanked the delegation for a frank, constructive and very useful dialogue that covered all key issues. Thailand had made a very good start in its first report to the Committee, which expected even better reports in the future.
In concluding remarks Suwana Suwanjuta, Deputy Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Justice of Thailand, said despite its long border with neighbours and the fact that it was a source, transit and destination country for migrants, Thailand had made considerable progress in better managing migration. Ms. Suwanjuta assured the Committee of Thailand’s commitment to fulfilling the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination for the benefit of all persons in Thailand.
The delegation of Thailand consisted of representatives of the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, the Office of the Attorney General, Ministry of Labour, Ministry of Public Health, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Interior, the Royal Thai Police, Chulalongkorn University, Internal Security Operations Command, Immigration Bureau, Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre, Department of National Parks, the National Security Council and the Permanent Mission of Thailand to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The Committee will issue its concluding observations and recommendations on the report of Thailand towards the end of its session, which concludes on 31 August.
The Committee will next meet in public at 10 a.m. on Tuesday 14 August in an informal meeting with non-governmental organizations from Senegal and Fiji. At 3 p.m., it will start its consideration of the combined sixteenth to eighteenth periodic report of Senegal (CERD/C/SEN/16-18).
The combined initial to third periodic report of Thailand can be read via the following link CERD/C/THA/1-3.
Presentation of the Report
SUWANA SUWANJUTA, Deputy Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Justice of Thailand, said Thailand became a State party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination on 28 January 2003 and it entered into force in the same year. Thailand had made reservations to two articles: Article 4 concerning affirmative measures to eliminate incitement to racial discrimination and Article 22 concerning the submission of disputes to the International Court of Justice. Thailand would study the possibility of withdrawing its reservation to Article 4, but stressed that the principles enshrined in it already formed part of Thailand’s domestic law. Ms. Suwanjuta also stressed that although Thailand currently had no specific legislation on racial discrimination, the main substance of the Convention was already incorporated into domestic legislation, including the 2007 Thai Constitution.
PITHAYA JINAWAT, Director-General of the Department of Rights and Liberties Protection at the Ministry of Justice, said as a centuries-old multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society, the challenges in building a society based on respect and tolerance were not unfamiliar to Thailand. The Thai people lived together in peace and harmony in an open society where one could often see churches, temples and mosques located in close vicinity, conducting their daily business in mutual respect. Without a colonial past, successive Thai Governments had thrived on promoting a free and open market economy that not only applied to tourists and temporary visitors but also to the various races and ethnic groups that made Thailand their home. Thanks to its strong economy substantial investments had been made to benefit the entire population, including a universal health care system and education for all, with no discrimination between Thai and foreign nationals. Overall poverty rates had fallen drastically, while social security had made strong advances.
Thailand’s reports were prepared over years of consultation with all stakeholders and sectors, including members of ethnic minority groups and civil society, who attended a National Conference in June 2008 to discuss the draft report. Recent developments included policies to ensure that all persons in Thailand had proper legal status by improving birth registration, improving assistance and rehabilitation for victims of human trafficking (both Thai and non-Thai nationals), and using the 2012 Nationality Act to help registered displaced Thais from neighbouring countries apply for Thai nationality. In April 2012 the Comprehensive Strategy on Resolving Irregular Migrants Problems was adopted, which addressed problems experienced by the various ethnic groups that had lived in Thailand for a long time, such as migrant workers from Myanmar, Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Cambodia.
Challenges remained with regard to the Southern Border Provinces, where despite the recent spike in violence the situation remained stable, and a focus on development led to over $ 2 billion being earmarked for improvements. The Government endeavoured to ensure that all persons affected by violence in the region were fairly treated regardless of their race or other status. Other challenges to fully addressing racial discrimination in Thailand included overcoming language, cultural and geographical barriers to ensure equal access to public services. Another obstacle was the lack of knowledge and understanding of both Government officials and the public of the rights of various groups in the country. Although campaigns were carried out to sensitize officials and the public, greater efforts were needed to ensure a truly tolerant society based on a human rights culture. For example, the first groups of women police cadets would soon complete their training and be able to contribute to more gender sensitive law enforcement. Thailand would redouble its efforts to widely disseminate the Convention while at the same time ensuring its application at a practical level.
CHUTINTORN GONGSAKDI, Deputy Director-General of the Department of International Organizations at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, took the floor to provide additional insight into the situation of ethnic groups, migrant workers, displaced persons and other non-citizens in Thailand. Thailand hosted millions of migrants and visitors from neighbouring countries and beyond. In recent years instability caused by the complex colonial history of Southeast Asia, which led to substantial displacement of populations, had been further complicated by economic disparities between countries which led people to seek greener pastures, work and economic opportunities. With its long land and sea borders of several thousand kilometres, Thailand had sought to address those problems through practical strategies. For example displaced Thais in neighbouring countries and long-stayers in Thailand of various ethnic groups who could not return to their country of origin were helped, and while not all groups immediately qualified for Thai nationality they could at a minimum gain residency status and their children would qualify for Thai nationality.
Thailand continued with the regularization and nationality verification of the estimated two million illegal migrant workers from Myanmar, Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Cambodia, including their children aged less than 15 years. Thailand was not a party to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees but that had not prevented it from playing a longstanding humanitarian role for asylum seekers and displaced persons regionally and internationally. Currently 70,000 displaced persons had been resettled under the fast-track screening while the protection and welfare of the estimated 140,000 displaced persons from Myanmar was ensured, until the time came for their safe and dignified return. Although Thailand had achieved or surpassed most of the Millennium Development Goals and enjoyed GDP growth of 6.5 per cent, challenges remained in reaching remote areas, improving disaggregated data on target groups, and resource implications for implementing new policies of providing healthcare and education to all. Thailand was fully committed to surpassing the problem of human trafficking, of which many victims were displaced persons, asylum seekers and migrants, and prioritized helping victims reintegrate back into society. Thailand did not condone racial discrimination and its national law clearly reflected that.
ALEXEI AVTONOMOV, Committee Chairperson, welcomed the delegation and reminded them that today’s meeting – as with all country reviews conducted in public by the Committee – was being webcast live on the Internet, so anyone in the world could watch it. Hopefully Bangkok was watching. Soon archives of webcast video footage would be available. Watch the live webcast via: http://www.treatybodywebcast.org.
Questions by the Experts
YONG’AN HUANG, Committee Member acting as Country Rapporteur for the Report of Thailand, welcomed the delegation of over 30 delegates and said Thailand was a familiar country and an important member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and a famous tourist destination visited by many. Thailand had a good relationship with the United Nations and had so far acceded to seven of the nine major United Nations human rights instruments, and was a party to many other international treaties. Since its ratification of those instruments and its new 2007 Constitution the protection of human rights in Thailand had significantly improved.
The Rapporteur asked detailed questions about the situation of the ‘sea gypsy’ people who lived in coastal areas, and about human trafficking, particularly the forced kidnapping of women and children from mostly rural areas to be used as sex slaves in major cities. He also asked about reports that undocumented migrants from neighbouring countries had faced serious abuse in Thailand, either by Government employers or private actors. The Rapporteur referred to unrest in the southern provinces where the majority of the population were Muslims, and said that since the 2004 unrest the Thai Government had applied martial law and emergency decrees in those areas, which inevitably affected the daily life of the local people.
An Expert referred to the impressive list of international instruments acceded to by the State party but said he was surprised to see that the Convention on Genocide was a notable absence, as was International Labour Organization Convention 169 on indigenous and tribal peoples and also the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Peoples. Raising the technical point of reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, an Expert said that Thailand’s reservation was particularly sweeping, but he heard the delegation say in its opening statements that it would withdraw its general reservation. Could the delegation please clarify?
The Thai report was not just comprehensive but also complex, as there were so many issues affecting the country, an Expert said. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Thailand’s development was a miracle among Southeast Asian countries. On the one hand it had a plethora of problems, but on the other any visitor to Thailand would see a society that was well-run, humane and truly admirable.
An Expert noted that the reports reflected concerns about women’s issues, and said he would like to know more about the participation of ethnic minorities in decision-making processes. He asked about statistics on the stateless members of the population. Although the term ‘indigenous peoples’ was not used in Thailand, the country must have understanding of concepts of cultural protection, land rights and free, informed and prior consent, as well as the overarching right of self-determination. What term did Thais use to refer to indigenous people? The report referred to efforts to improve reception, or welcome centres, for refugees. Could the delegation provide more information?
Thailand was a country with great cultural, artistic and religious heritage characterized by Buddhist wisdom, a great hallmark of Thailand, an Expert said. On the other side Thailand was a country with ethnic tensions, sometimes violent conflicts, and problems with trafficking of human beings. However, what country did not have its bright and dark sides? He focused on the situation of ethnic minorities in the north of the country, sometimes called the ‘hill tribes’ or Highlands People, as highlighted by the July 2012 review of Thailand by the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review process. Those people were sometimes viewed as a threat to national security while their situation was connected to drug trafficking and the exploitation of forests and their natural environment. What about the situation of the Keren indigenous people who numbered some 138,000, as well as the Mon-Khmer people?
Another Expert welcomed the delegation and noted the large size and the number of young people in it, and their new methods of providing oral information to the Committee which helped the Experts better understand the situation there. The Expert asked how Thailand was maintaining order in the refugee camps on its southern borders, near Myanmar. He asked for more information on the situation of refugee people including people displaced from Myanmar and the Rohingya people (the ‘boat people’) as well as Buddhist monks who had fled Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Could the delegation elaborate on the situation of Malayou Thai-Muslim refugees coming from Malaysia who lived in Thailand?
How were the rights of indigenous peoples living in forests in Thailand protected? There were reports that those indigenous peoples were not only being blamed for the damaging effects of climate change that were increasingly affecting Thailand, but were even being punished for bringing about climate change, supposedly by felling trees. Who was responsible for climate change was a very big issue: perhaps the people responsible were actually those in the richest and largest countries and the international industries – in fact everybody knew that the biggest country in the world contributed 30 per cent of the world’s pollution. It was very unfair to blame a tiny population that lived in a forest for climate change; on the contrary those people’s rights to their ancestral lands should be protected.
An Expert referred to the problem of sexual abuse by tourists, and said based on his understanding much of the tourism-led sexual abuse was by Western tourists, who had the money to spend on it. The primary victims were young girls. The Government had taken measures to better protect those young girls from sexual abuse by Western tourists, but could it elaborate on its work in that regard?
Were there any people of African origin living in Thailand, and if so what was the relationship between them and the Thai population? The report noted that Thailand was a Buddhist country, an Expert said, and asked whether Buddhism had been declared the official religion of the country, and if that was so, how did it affect non-Buddhists, particularly if they worked for the Government?
Response by the Delegation
A delegate began by discussing Thailand’s obligations in terms of international legislation. Thailand was a party to seven of the nine human rights treaties. It was part of the consensus vote on the United Nations Declaration on Minorities, something that was important to Thailand. Thailand had been party to the ‘yes vote’ on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. That declaration was recently been translated into Thai, and further dissemination and discussion of it in the country was anticipated. Thailand was not yet a party to the United Nations Declaration on Genocide, but was considering ratifying the International Criminal Court Statute, which included genocide. Thailand was not a party to the International Labour Organization’s Convention on Indigenous Peoples, and would consider doing so, but in the meantime it was a party to 10 other International Labour Organization conventions, some of which covered not only Thais, but also indigenous peoples and migrant workers. Finally, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was currently drafting an human rights declaration of which a key difficult point of that process was dealing with universality and particularities.
Thailand looked forward to the Committee’s follow-up on possible withdrawal of its reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, as until now it had not considered it. Thailand did not have a specific national law implementing the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination; under the Thai system international treaties were not directly applicable unless they were transferred into domestic law. However, articles of the Convention were already present in several Thai laws and its Constitution.
The Thai National Human Rights Commission, which was graded ‘A’ under the Paris Principles, was very active, especially in receiving complaints, and provided a reliable check and balance system. Similarly, Thai civil society was extremely active in providing further checks and balances, as well as contributing to the promotion and protection of human rights in other ways.
A delegate spoke about the minority group Malayou, a Thai-Muslim minority that came from Malaysia. The Malayou people, who were based in the south of the country, were encouraged to use their own language in their daily life and their culture and traditions were respected. The delegate also announced that martial law and emergency decrees had been ended in four departments, while there were negotiations underway to end emergency laws in other southern regions.
Regarding human trafficking and migrant workers, a delegate said that as the Committee was aware, it was a complex problem that affected the most vulnerable groups: women, girls, boys and migrants. Trafficking took the form of labour and sexual exploitation. New laws and mechanisms were constantly being developed to tackle the problem, particularly the 2008 Anti-Trafficking Law and a new protocol to better punish perpetrators. Thailand took an inter-agency approach to fight trafficking at both the national and local level, adopting a multi-stakeholder approach to reinforce collaboration between Government agencies and non-governmental organizations in the rescue, return, repatriation and rehabilitation of victims. The Department of Special Investigations had established an Anti-Human Trafficking Centre as a special unit to enforce legislation. The department had increased the efficiency and effectiveness of law enforcement measures to prevent trafficking. The rights of trafficking victims included provisions for them to work temporarily outside of shelters, to claim compensation on several levels, and to receive grants from the anti-trafficking fund.
In response to reports referred to by Experts of Thailand returning pregnant migrant workers to their home countries, a delegate assured the Committee that in reality no such action had been taken and the theory remained at a discussion stage. The Ministry of Labour was carefully considering all aspects of the proposition, with the priority being ensuring the wellbeing of mother and child. Thailand was engaging with all stakeholders to that end.
Turning to displaced persons and asylum seekers, the Government responded to all genuine cases with respect to the principle of non-refoulement, which was non-negotiable, while all human rights principles were upheld. The situation of the Muslims from Rohingya and northern Rakhine State, found in Bangladesh and Myanmar, was a complex one. In fact many of those Muslims were travelling to other Muslim countries in the region. As a matter of procedure, those found on Thai territories or in Thai waters, who based on statistics were all male of working age, were all processed under Thai immigration laws. If the migrants were found in international waters and had the intention of travelling on to other countries, food and water were provided to them.
The human rights dimensions of the issue of displaced persons had been reinforced, while the sensitive issues of nationality and identity were being addressed. Before the recent increase in violence, which set back assistance to Muslim asylum seekers from the northern Rakhine State, Thailand had been making good progress. The Government was cautiously optimistic that dialogue with the relevant authorities in Myanmar and Bangladesh would continue next month. Thailand continued to actively work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as well as to engage with other neighbouring countries, particularly within the framework of the Bali Process on Human Trafficking. Overall, Thailand believed that the problems needed to be solved at the point of origin.
The case of the Laotian monks was now closed. Together with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Thai Government considered it a successful case. It was not easy to find success stories, but both Thailand and the High Commissioner took strength in the successful closing of that particular case, which was considered an issue of illegal immigration. Meanwhile Thailand continued to give its neighbour Lao People's Democratic Republic development assistance.
Displaced persons from Myanmar had been hosted in Thailand for over 30 years. There were currently 140,000 displaced persons from Myanmar living in Thailand. With the assistance of non-governmental organizations and international agencies they were provided with food, shelter, education and medical aid. They were given vocational and skills training while the various solutions – resettlement and repatriation – were pursued. In the past, displaced persons from Myanmar living in temporary shelters exercised self-government through ‘Camp Committees’. A legacy of that was the potential transfer of those camp committees to the villages over the border in Myanmar where the people would hopefully be resettled. Those camp commanders were future leaders and bureaucrats with whom Thailand hoped to build a good relationship.
One reality that emerged from discussions on the future of Myanmar with other international Governments and organizations was that should the situation in Myanmar improve to a certain point, Thailand may wake up to find that most of the camp populations had voted with their feet. The people may not wait for an international plan that told them to ‘go’. There was no specific timeframe for the return of the displaced persons living in temporary shelters. Although camp closure was the ultimate goal it would not happen imminently. Already, much assistance from the international donor community was being transferred to the other side of the border, which had created problems for the non-governmental organizations working on the Thai side, as while the displaced population was still present in Thailand they still needed services on a daily basis. It was important to get the balance right.
Should the 140,000-strong displaced persons return to Myanmar, Thailand would be left with just 2,000 displaced persons, which seemed a much more manageable figure. At that point, Thailand may consider joining the United Nations Convention on Refugees, although Thailand already abided by many of the Convention’s principles.
Thailand had ‘bitten the human rights bug’, a delegate said, and was very enthusiastic about human rights, which it believed was the key ingredient to reach many goals. Thailand was going out and spreading the message. For example a pocket-size card had been issued to members of the Thai military that explained human rights to them in terms of ‘things you should do’ and ‘things you should not do’. The task was converting people, making them understand. Thailand was running for a seat on the United Nations Security Council, and wanted to base its campaign on a human rights platform, as they were a fundamental foundation for peace. If you respected human rights you had peace.
Along the Thai-Myanmar border there were 320,000 ethnic minority people and 218,000 people without birth registration. The Thai Government recently approved a large financial package to provide all of those persons with free healthcare. The migrant workers from neighbouring countries would also be provided with free healthcare to the same standard as Thai people.
Regarding language, Thai was both the national and the official language of Thailand. However, the use of local languages reflected diversity and formed part of local cultures which should be preserved. Therefore measures to promote other minority and local languages were carried out. Primary school children were taught to read and write in their mother-tongue language as well as in Thai, which contributed to an improvement in both children’s confidence and overall studies, as well as in keeping those languages alive.
Follow-Up Questions by Experts
An Expert said that the report seemed to show that Thai society was free of any racial discrimination – there were no specific definitions of racial discrimination and there were no laws punishing it. There were laws to punish propaganda, insults and so on but nothing specifically on racial discrimination. Every country suffered from acts of discrimination, and however many acts there were, preventive legislation outlawing racial discrimination were needed. The issue of indigenous people living in Thai forests who were blamed for climate change was again raised by an Expert.
Another Expert referred to the question of terminology, particularly the terms ‘refugees’ and ‘indigenous peoples’. The question of terminology for ethnic and migrant groups was a delicate one. Minorities were not the object of any international instrument, but refugees and indigenous peoples were.
Response by the Delegation
A delegate emphasized that Thailand did not use the term ‘refugee’ as it was not a party to the United Nations Convention on Refugees, and it did not want to inadvertently draw itself into classifying people as such.
Referring to comments about legislation, a delegate said, like everybody, they had to deal with parliamentarians and politicians. He asked the Committee to send a message to politicians in their concluding observations.
Answering a question about indigenous groups and accusations of responsibility for climate change, a delegate said that scientific methods – such as aerial and onsite surveys – had been used to get information about forests and national parks, and the groups living there. Ethnic groups who lived there were allowed to remain provided they did not harm the national parks or resources therein. Certain actions related to the ethnic groups were not based on their culture, but on well-documented cross-border movements and illegal activities in national parks. Nevertheless, the methods used by the Government so far were peaceful and constructive, namely meeting with the representative of the villages and ethnic minorities and forging agreements. It was true that fines had been applied to some groups, without discrimination, as sanctions for damaging natural resources. The charges were civil and not criminal, and were calculated on a scientific and economic formula based on the cost of minerals extracted, any increase in temperature in the area and an estimate of how long it would take the forest to regenerate. The Government was constantly reviewing the best way to balance all considerations. Encroachment on forest reserves was a big and controversial issue, and the theory that the actions were linked to climate change was a distant one.
Under the National Park Act a case had been filed with the Constitutional Court which found that human rights had not been encroached on by actions taken with regard to groups living in the forests of Thailand. Further, the new 2012 Nationality Act would cover some of the groups of people linked to the issue.
YONG’AN HUANG, Committee Member acting as Country Rapporteur for the Report of Thailand, in brief summery remarks, thanked the delegation for its responses and said the dialogue had been frank, constructive and very useful. Key issues discussed were the human rights situation of Muslims in the southern provinces and other ethnic minorities, as well as the human rights of migrant workers and stateless persons, and the issue of human trafficking. Thailand had made a very good start in its first report to the Committee, which expected even better reports in the future.
SUWANA SUWANJUTA, Deputy Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Justice of Thailand, said many of the issues raised by the Committee were issues that Thailand was already aware of and was already trying to address. Having acknowledged the many challenges that Thailand still faced, the progress made so far should also be mentioned. Despite its long border with neighbours and the fact that it was a source, transit and destination country for migrants, Thailand had made considerable progress in better managing migration. Ms. Suwanjuta assured the Committee of Thailand’s commitment to fulfilling the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination for the benefit of all persons in Thailand.
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