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The Thai government have always maintained that the measures they have taken against pro-democracy protests follow international procedures. Prachatai has talked to the UN Special Rapporteur to find out what these standards actually are.

Protesters hold mats, bracing themselves against the water cannons during the 17 November protest near parliament.

The rising tide of pro-democracy protests in Thailand has been met with attempts from the state to quell them, in the form of prosecutions, container barricades, threats, razor wire, and riot control weaponry.

Spokespersons for the police and government often state that their measures are in line with universal standards. Amidst increasing international scrutiny of state suppression of citizens’ freedoms, the question is: is this true?

Seeking answers, Prachatai interviewed Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, who has tweeted his concern over the crackdown at Pathumwan intersection on 16 October regarding best practice for facilitating the exercise of freedom of assembly, and the benefit of doing so.

An interview was taken on 4 December, 2020.

Prachatai: What is your opinion on the current protests in Thailand? Is there any observation about standards on the proportionality of the use of force or legal action?

Voule: As a Special Rapporteur, my role is to remind the government of the obligation to ensure that these fundamental freedoms are guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Article 21 and other relevant UN instruments as signed by the Thai government that these rights are enforced at the national level.

Clément Nyaletsossi Voule

My concern was mainly based on the fact that enjoying your right to peaceful assembly is not criminal. For me, it is important to remind the government that anyone that enjoys the right to peaceful assembly or to organize a peaceful assembly, or participate in a peaceful assembly does not deserve criminal charges.

From the information that I received, the youth and the protesters were around 2,000. Their main demands, and I know that there are a lot of issues raised and voices, but their demands are a new constitution, a new election and to end harassment against people or critics against the government, and actually this is legitimate to my mind. And this is exactly where the fundamental right should be useful for people to participate, for people to voice out their concerns, for people to protect their interests.

To me it was surprising to see that the exact demands can be met by the excessive use of force. The communication that I have sent to Thai government is now public. I also issued a press release reiterating my concern that it is important for any government to ensure that each citizen is able to use democratic means to express their grievances.

The protesters also demand monarchy reform, for which they later faced prosecution. What do you think about the charges under the lèse majesté law?

For me, these fundamental freedoms of association and peaceful protest are there for people to express their political view. It is there within the UN resolution, also under the ICCPR, but also in the new general comment that elaborates more, that people have the right to be able to express their political view through this democratic means which is peaceful protest.

A protester displays the protesters' 3 demands during the 21 October protest at the Victory Monument.

I think that political participation also means that people are able to give their opinion on which kind of society they want and how they want their society to be improved. I do not think that such a demand is a demand that contradicts what the ICCPR protects.

For me it is important to ensure that the sole expression of the opinion of people on their view, on how they want to see society does not cause or involve criminal charges.

If in society, we are not able to express our own view, I can understand that this issue can be controversial but this is also how any society democratically deals with it, is to go and confront the people and see what the people's opinion are and see how the Thai population and Thai citizens see this issue.

What is your idea on the Public Assembly Act that in some ways limits people from staging protests. What should the state do to enforce the law effectively?

I want to highlight that the rights to peaceful association should be facilitated and should be guaranteed by the states. And yes, there are limitations in a very narrow and specific limitation under the ICCPR and some of the limitations can be in the interests of public order, of other people's rights.

It is important also to ensure that these restrictions are not used to undermine these rights. The intention of the government should not be to use some of these limitations to prevent people from exercising their fundamental freedom. Those limitations are there to ensure that the government can protect the protest and also protect the public order.

Containers blocking Makawan Rangsan Bridge, leading toward the Government House and monarchy-related facilities. Deployed by police on 10 December when activists tried to submit a petition to the UN.

The government should ensure that there are fewer protected areas. In many countries, we see that many governments are using the protected areas or are flagging some areas as high security areas just to prevent people from gathering, or sometimes they privatize those areas to ensure that there is no gathering in front of the world.

When you protest, what is the meaning of the protest? You protest and you want to allow people in the community, the diplomatic community, citizens and other people to hear your concern. You can also protest to assure that the parliament understands what is going on. If you want to protest, if you want the parliament to hear you, what is the point to go and protest 10,000 miles away from the parliament?

More barricaded on 17 November, bar pro-democracy protesters from entering parliament where protests are prohibited according to the Public Assemply Act. Pro-government were allowed to gather in front of parliament.

We raised many concerns about some of the government actions that protect certain areas that are not really high security areas, like a military camp. Sometimes, they are public areas where many governments feel like protests that have been there carry more visibility. We raise many concerns about this.

In the case of Thailand, what I can see is that, for me, the important part is the fact that the protests are happening in some of these areas. Even though they are protected areas, it doesn't mean that the government is allowed to use excessive force against the protesters. The action the government takes should be proportionate, necessary, and should be done in a way that protects the rights of people.

When I say the rights of people themselves, it is that, when you participate in the protest, you have the right to protest but also you have other types of rights: the right to life, the right to health, all other numerous rights, the right not to be tortured, to not be killed.

My concern always is that the government should not use the argument of protected areas to repress peaceful protest.

How should the universal standard of freedom of peaceful association be applied under controversial political circumstances in Thailand?

The objective of the guarantee of this fundamental right is to allow people to be able to ensure that their voices are heard, to be able to politically participate in the life of the country. I think it is important to say that, in a time of crisis, the exercise of these rights is important. Why? Because through the exercise of peaceful protest, people are also able to make sure that their opinions are heard. It is also at this time that the government needs to hear people.

Police officers direct traffic after protesters suddenly occupied Asoke intersection on 18 October.

If you look at history, protest has been an instrument for many people to free themselves from authoritarian regimes. It is the tool for people to build a better society because whenever society is going through a crisis, people are able to stand up through collective action, through collective expression to ensure that their opinion, or to ensure that they need change in the way of governance.

For me it is important to ensure that when people express this fundamental freedom, it seems to the government as a way for people to be part of the political discussion, political decisions and political consensus that would happen in the country.

That is why I always reiterate to the government that it is important to resolve the need for dialogue with peaceful protesters. Through the dialogue, you can ensure that you fulfil the legitimate demands of the protesters. You can also ensure that the government’s opinion and the way the government sees things also is heard by the protesters.

Usually we see that a peaceful protest is seen by the government as a threat against national security or threat against economic development. Under international law, it is clear that the freedom of peaceful protest should be guaranteed to all citizens. Government has the right in narrow circumstances to limit this right.

A worker sets up a sign stating "Royal Premises" in front of the Crown Property Bureau on 24 November after the pro-democracy protesters announced to protest there. The Royal Premises, in general are not a protest-prohibited area according to the Public Assembly Act.

Any limitation passed by government should also be enforced by necessity, proportionality and legality because these limitations should be provided by law. Even in this case, any action the government should take to limit these rights should be enforced by the least means. If there are other means to ensure that people are not harmed, people’s rights are not undermined, we encourage the government to use those means.

It is clear that peaceful protest, the main objective of peaceful protest, is for people to ensure that they are allowed to participate in the life of society. In my experience, people do not go to the street to protest just because they have time or because they like it. In many cases, people are facing long term problems that are not solved and the only tool they still have to ensure that the government hears them is to go on the streets to express their views peacefully.

Regarding the Covid-19 pandemic, what should the government do both to control disease and ensure freedom of association?

Many governments are doing their best to control the pandemic and I really applaud that. I really appreciate that some governments are trying to take measures to control the pandemic and ensure that the fundamental freedoms are guaranteed.

But what we're seeing, is many governments are using Covid-19 as a pretext to limit the expression of this right. For example, many governments take decisions or decrees to prevent people from gathering but at the same time, many governments also allow supermarkets, markets, and other types of gathering to happen.

When it comes to political gatherings, we also notice that many governments said ‘No. We are facing the pandemic’. But we know also that it is still possible for people to protest while they are protecting themselves. We saw in many cases that using a mask during the protest is also a way for people to protect themselves.

I think the best thing is to standardize the protests on the need to protect themselves by using a mask, washing hands, rather than resorting to this kind of blanket limitation and say 'No. there shouldn’t be any protest' just because there is Covid-19. It is happening in many countries and there is no indication that because of a protest, the disease spread more. By the way, I think many of the scientists say that the spread of the disease happens mainly within families.

I emphasize to the government that any measure that is put in place to fight against Covid-19 should comply with international standards, respect fundamental freedoms and if there is a need to have certain limitations, those limitations must be proportionate, focused on fighting against disease, ensuring and protecting public health rather than using Covid-19 as a pretext to counter any political dissent or any political gathering.

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