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Over 50 groups and 20 individuals urge the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights and the UNWG and other agencies working on Business and Human Rights to intervene and highlight the ongoing situation of judicial harassment against women and men Human Rights Defenders (W/HRDs) in Thailand.

7 June 2020 - In light of the UN Virtual Forum on Business and Human Rights: New Challenges. New Approaches, Asia and the Pacific to be held next week, over 50 civil society organizations and 20 individuals have collectively submitted an open letter to the organizers of the Forum, calling that crucial points regarding Thai government’s policies on protecting women human rights defenders be addressed.

The Forum, which was co-organized by various key UN agencies including The UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights (UNWG) and UN Women, will see governments, business, and human rights groups gather to discuss how governments can ensure that private sector operates with responsibility and respect human rights principles. It is to take place online this year during 9-11 June 2020 due to the COVID19 pandemic.

The letter urges the organizers of the forum to emphasize the ongoing situation of judicial harassment of women and men Human Rights Defenders (W/HRDs) in Thailand. Judicial harassment, which the groups see as a significant barrier to the work of W/HRDs in Thailand, violates the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the letter states.

According to Protection International, there are over 440 women human rights defenders in Thailand who have faced charges from defending human rights in their community since 2014. Most of the complaints have been lodged against urban poor women facing eviction. The second largest group of victims have been women defending land and natural resources of their communities.  These cases have been filed by, amongst others, mining corporations, palm oil companies and some State-run agencies.

Frequently, instead of supporting and protecting W/HRDs, the Thai government seems to enable companies to engage in judicial and other forms of harassment and intimidation, states the open letter.

The letter cites the example of a gold mining company, with the involvement of some Thai authorities, committed serious human rights violations; including mounting a violent attack in 2014, against members of the women-led community group Khon Rak Ban Kerd (KRBKG), Loei Province. The subsequent actions included lodging about 22 legal cases against the W/HRDs. The cases were brought by both the company and the State. Authorities charged the community leaders with violating the Peaceful Assembly Act simply for gathering to peacefully protest the damage project was causing in their area. 

Judicial harassment by companies/corporations is also happening against other WHRDs working in support of grassroots women and communities.  For example, currently several charges of criminal defamation have been lodged against 2019 Magsaysay Award recipient and former Thailand National Human Rights Commissioner, Ms. Angkhana Neelapaijit, a prominent advocate for human rights and justice. This same company has to date lodged at least 37 complaints against 22 Human Rights Defenders, amongst others, Ms. Puttanee Kangkun, Ms. Thanaporn Saleephol, Ms. Sutharee Wannasiri, Ms. Suchanee Cloitre (journalist), Ms. Suthasinee Kaewleklai (Unionist), Ms. Ngamsuk Ruttanasatian (a lecturer) and many other prominent W/HRDs.

The defamation charges they face carry penalties ranging between prison sentences of 8 – 42 years, and fines ranging $US25,000 – US$133,000.  Most of the complaints involve things like the simple act of sharing tweets in support of migrant workers pursuing their struggle for labor rights.

The letter highlights the impacts of the judicial harassment on the W/HRDs. “By charging one woman, the whole family and often an entire community is affected. Women carry the responsibility for caring for the family. The time taken up defending these lawsuits is time taken away from the work of caring for the family. Aside from interfering in the practical needs of the family, their frequent absences can result in women being accused of “neglecting their duties.”

“The stigma borne by women judged to be failing to take care of the family is very serious, especially in the rural communities. Court hearings are often held in provincial, a considerable distance from these WHRD’s home.  The added economic burden of childcare, travel and legal support increases stress and hardship. It also makes it impossible to continue any fulltime waged work by reason of these court processes. Judicial harassment of community WHRDs increases the possibility of silencing these crucial voices that most importantly need to be heard,” states the letter.               

The open letter also calls for the organizers to raise following particular points to the Thai government:

1.      The need to address such litigious attacks intended to undermine struggles for human rights has been well noted in reports and recommendations made by the U.N. Working Group on Business and Human Rights since 2018. We urge the UNWG and organizers of the Forum to request the Thai government report on their progress towards compliance of these recommendations.

2.      The Action Plan for Human Rights Defenders is one of four key areas of the National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights; yet there have been no concrete moves to effectively protect or recognize the work of W/HRDs. The NAP and subsequent Articles regarding judicial protections do not have the status of law. It is merely a resolution by the executive branch of the Thai government and is considered a “by-law” pursuant to section 3 of the Act on Establishment of Administrative Courts and Administrative Court Procedure B.E. 2542 (1999).  It carries no judicial weight or enforcement capacity.

3.      In 2019, Articles 161/1 and 165/2 of the Criminal Procedure Code were also introduced to try and address such SLAPP lawsuits and other similar forms of judicial harassment. These amendments now allow a court to dismiss and forbid the refiling of a complaint by a private individual if the complaint is filed “in bad faith or with misrepresentation of facts in order to harass or take advantage of a defendant.” However, these new Articles in the law have not been effective. Terms such as “bad faith” are not even defined in the law, and it is left to the Court’s discretion. Most applications by W/HRDs to invoke Article 161/1 to date have been denied.

4.      Under Section 21 of the 2010 Public Prosecutor Organ and Public Prosecutors Act, complaints, including those brought to harass, intimidate, or retaliate against human rights defenders or others can be dismissed. However, the decision not to prosecute must be made by the Attorney-General alone. This is a lengthy procedure and it’s not clear whether adequate resources and support have been provided to the Attorney General’s Office to exercise their powers effectively and efficiently.

5.      There is also no clear procedure or provision for fining or otherwise penalizing businesses who have been found guilty of trying to resort to judicial harassment of W/HRDs.   We urge the State to prevent all threats and harassment.  Those responsible for attacks on defenders including judicial harassment must be held accountable. Those found to fail the duty of care to support and protect W/HRDs must face political, financial and judicial consequences.

6. Defamation, even when proven is not an offense that is harmful to one’s life, body or property. It should not be considered or treated as a criminal offense which carries a sentence of imprisonment and/or large fines. Such are sentences usually reserved for serious crimes.  We urge the UNWG and other agencies to strongly encourage the Thai Government decriminalize defamation and remove all criminal penalties for defamation.

7. We call on all stakeholders who work on business and human rights to spend their resources and power to ensure that the Thai Government and all relevant business enterprises immediately end judicial harassment of W/HRDs, especially women, and to take concrete steps to promote good business with a genuine commitment to human rights

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