Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Human rights: the foundation for equity, fairness and resilience in Thailand

Every year on December 10, people around the world celebrate Human Rights Day.

It is a day where we reflect together on the achievements made and the challenges remaining to ensure everyone is entitled to their inherent human rights regardless of their social status, ethnicity, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation or political affiliation. Such reflection is timely for Thailand. While the country has made progress in promoting human rights in many areas, challenges are mounting, following over a year of political turmoil.

Successive Thai governments have ratified and supported a number of international and regional human rights agreements and declarations, signifying the country's commitment to protect, respect and fulfil human rights for all. This year, the country reported on its implementation of the Convention against Torture, and has prepared another review under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In 2015, Thailand will chair the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

Several commitments have transformed into concrete results in many areas, notably healthcare and education. Since the introduction of the universal healthcare scheme in 2001, 99.9 per cent of Thai citizens have access to healthcare, which is provided as a public good for all, financed publicly and equitably. Moreover, recognising that universal healthcare is available to only a limited proportion of migrant workers, the government has taken initiatives to extend it to migrant workers and their families. Thailand has also made impressive progress in fighting Aids and is firmly on the path to ending the epidemic by 2030. The country has become the first in Asia to provide HIV treatment irrespective of the stage of the disease. In terms of education, Thailand has achieved the Millennium Development Goal's education targets on universal primary education and gender equality. More girls than in the past are obtaining secondary and tertiary education. These achievements in healthcare and education bring economic gains to the country, and increase food security and livelihood options for many.

At the same time, while we recognise these achievements, there remain challenges to human rights promotion and protection in Thailand. The current restrictions on freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, fair trial and other political rights are worrying. These continuing restrictions hamper Thai society from resolving longer-term obstacles to advancement that are related to social, economic, and geographic inequalities, and discriminatory practices.

Violence against women and children, both boys and girls, is a serious violation of human rights. Our experiences show that in order to effectively prevent violence against women and children, it is important that existing policies and laws be adequately implemented to protect victims and to punish perpetrators.

Ethnic minorities remain particularly vulnerable in Thailand. Despite being born in Thailand, many among them are labelled "stateless" or "rootless" due to lack of legal documentation, and excluded from accessing some of the services and opportunities available to Thai citizens. Although, in the last decade, successive governments have developed a commendable strategy to address these issues relating to ethnic minorities, still half a million people remain excluded based on their ethnic identity.

Because of Thailand's robust economy and ageing population, the country attracts and embraces migrant workers, but many of these face challenges in having their rights protected. Threats and abuses they face during various stages of the migration process leave them vulnerable, and even susceptible to human trafficking. Under international human rights law, all human beings, including migrant workers, regardless of their legal status, must be free from exploitation and mistreatment, and assured that their rights are protected and respected. This can only be achieved through coordinated efforts with their countries of origin, social partners and the justice, health, education and labour sectors - a solution that Thailand has begun to adopt.

So where does this leave us? Thailand is at a critical juncture. The country has made much progress in development, but these achievements can only be sustained when there is a strong support for human rights. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, we all have "our collective responsibility to promote and protect the rights and dignity of all people everywhere". Indeed, while states are often the main duty-bearers, human rights cannot be achieved without people's active engagement in asserting and claiming their rights. As Thailand transits back to democracy, the reform process must ensure public participation from all sectors of society. At the same time, Thai citizens must be empowered to take active roles in decision-making processes that affect their lives. At the UN, we are committed in continuing our support to both the Thai government and its people in achieving an equal, fair and resilient society.

Luc Stevens is UN resident coordinator in Thailand.

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