Asian Human Rights Commission
Note: This article was released as a statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AS-32-2005) on 23 March 2005.
The announcement last week by Thailand’s new justice minister Suwat Liptapanlop that a missing-persons centre will be established under the Forensic Science Institute deserves strong public support. The growing number of alleged disappearances in Thailand is cause for deep concern. A properly established forensic centre for missing persons is urgently needed to help counteract this trend. As the first meeting to plan for the centre will be held this March 28, it should be accompanied by widespread public discussion on the centre’s anticipated role.
Considering the experiences of other countries that have sought to address large-scale disappearances, including a number in Asia, what should be expected of the missing-persons centre?
To function effectively, the centre needs access to the remains of missing persons. There must be a body, or something upon which investigations may be based. Without a body or other forensic evidence, the centre will have nothing to do. However, in many forced disappearances, the victim vanishes without a trace. This is what has happened to human rights lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit. In that case and others like it in Thailand, the police have also been accused of damaging the few shreds of forensic evidence left at the scene of the disappearance. Under these circumstances, to identify the perpetrators and prosecute them according to the gravity of the crime is extremely difficult.
To protect vital forensic evidence of missing persons, therefore, disappearance must be made a crime. Effective identification of disappeared persons requires that legal provisions exist to prohibit disposal of bodies in suspicious deaths until the proper procedure has been completed. The draft International Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Forced Disappearance comprehensively defines the crime of disappearance and sets out the necessary provisions to address it in accordance with international law. In making forced disappearance a crime, this definition and other elements of the draft convention should be adopted in order that the centre will be fully equipped to vigorously pursue the cases brought to its attention. In a March 2005 report on Thailand to the U.N. Human Rights Committee, the Asian Legal Resource Centre pointed to the need for such a law, in conjunction with a specialised agency to address disappearances.
To give the work of the centre meaning, it must go beyond mere identification of persons and deal with all aspects of disappearances. The centre should not be limited to simply identifying remains, without thoroughly examining the circumstances of death. If its mandate is too restrictive, many questions will remain unanswered and doubt will be cast over the its ability to deliver justice. If the perpetrators of disappearances are not held accountable, it will only serve to encourage further acts of cruelty. Modern forensic science offers numerous methods by which the circumstances of death can be established through post-mortem examinations, DNA testing, and preservation of key evidence for future study. A large number of national and international reports also offer guidance in methods used to undertake enquiries into forced disappearances, in order to identify not only the victim but also the perpetrators. It is especially gratifying that the centre is to be established under the Forensic Science Institute, which is the leading agency in its field in Thailand and is well-equipped to take into account international developments and standards when entering into this work.
To identify missing persons and perpetrators of disappearances is an act invested with much more than purely legal and technical significance. It is also a deeply personal and innately human act. Forced disappearance has been recognised as a grave human rights violation not only because of the effect on the victim but also because of the effect on the family and loved ones. We all mourn our dead. Where the deceased is remembered through religious ceremonies and customary paying of respect, the pain is eased. Where this cannot be done for want of a body, it is far more difficult to mourn. The father of a disappeared child may for years wait by the household door, the mother may for years keep a spare bowl of food ready in the kitchen. The recovery of remains and identification of perpetrators helps alleviate such pain. The neglect of the dead and missing, by contrast, erodes not only family morale but also that of the whole society. Where disappearances are denied, so too grief for lost children, for lost parents, for lost siblings and friends is denied. Under these circumstances, society becomes less human, more violent.
The justice minister’s announcement of the new centre for missing persons should provoke widespread discussion both in Thailand and abroad. The government of Thailand should be open to many ideas and suggestions about how the centre is to function, in order that it fulfil public expectations. Professionals with relevant expertise in medical, legal and other fields should be actively involved in establishing the centre. Families of victims and human rights defenders should be invited to contribute. Forensic science agencies from around the world that have been working in Thailand since the December 2004 tsunami should also be prepared to give advice and resources. If an effective missing-persons centre is realised in Thailand it will stand as a model for other Asian countries. We can look forward to a time that the expertise growing out of this centre will cause others in the region to seek guidance from Thailand on establishing similar bodies elsewhere.
At a time that most news from Thailand has given little cause for optimism, the proposed missing-persons centre is a welcome initiative that, if properly implemented, may strongly support efforts to protect and promote human rights there. It is a necessary and timely initiative. The Asian Human Rights Commission encourages all concerned persons in Thailand and abroad to open serious discussion on the future shape of the centre. May it realise the aspirations for justice among families of victims, and open a new chapter in the struggle for human rights and dignity in Thailand, and across our region.