On 15 September 2016, the British Embassy in Bangkok hosted a reception as part of the United Nations designated ‘International Day of Democracy’. The event focussed on SDG 16, which calls for “inclusive and participatory societies and institutions”, as part of the theme ‘Democracy and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’. Democratic values were discussed which provided a forum to promote the positive role that civil society organisations (CSOs) play in protecting and defending democracy. The Regional Director for UPR Info Asia, Ms. Emilie Pradichit, spoke on the role of the UPR as a democratic mechanism promoting inclusion and equality, which are essential foundations to achieve real democracy, and stressed on ways CSOs and governments could uphold these democratic values. She discussed: (1) the link between democracy and human rights; (2) the watchdog role of civil society to monitor and check that the State is respecting and protecting the rights of the people; and (3) the importance to promote an inclusive society to dismantle inequalities.
CSOs require governments to uphold public freedoms in order to carry out intended roles within democracy. Ms. Pradichit discussed the need for principles of democracy to be respected under international law, such as the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action which outlines the role of democracy and human rights as “interdependent and mutually reinforcing”. To enable civil society to carry out its role, Ms. Pradichit stressed on the need to provide a comprehensive legal framework that is compliant with the international standards protecting public freedoms, freedoms of expression and association, the right to peaceful assembly, and the right to vote, among others as a prerequisite to creating and maintaining a safe, enabling environment for civil society to carry out activities.
CSOs ensure governments fulfill their democratic obligations and that decision making processes are kept accountable. Ms. Pradichit described democracy as a social contract where people conditionally transfer some of their rights to the government, in order to enjoy a stable environment expressing their rights. Governments exist by the consent of the people in order to protect their rights and to promote the public good. Therefore, the first and most basic role of civil society is to monitor and ensure that the State is respecting and protecting the rights of the people.
Ms. Pradichit invited guests to further dialogue on whether international and national NGOs operating in Thailand and mainly based in Bangkok, as well as foreign and national media, were effectively promoting and protecting principles of democracy under international law in Thailand. Indeed, having access to public freedoms like freedom of expression is not an end in itself, equal access to freedom of expression and to have one’s voice heard is also essential not to perpetuate inequalities in Thai society. Civil society is an arena for the expression of all diverse interests and not only for the resourceful or powerful. Groups that have been confined to the margins of society in Thailand should be empowered to assert their rights and defend their interests as well. An inclusive, collaborative approach is necessary to prevent perpetuating inequalities, and to ensure all interest groups have a forum for to be heard. The international community has an important role to play in supporting CSOs and in guaranteeing local communities from rural areas and marginalised populations are visible, heard and supported to contribute to the advancement of human rights on the ground.
Representatives of the Thai CSOs Coalition for the UPR, who are also members of marginalised communities or living in rural areas, underlined the UPR as a powerful tool which brought together for the first time groups from diverse backgrounds, encouraging them to work as one strong powerful voice but most importantly, which made them visible and heard by the international diplomatic community. They highlighted the critical need to work as an inclusive constituency, where each member respects peers, contributes equally, and fosters an inclusive environment.
UPR Info Asia is striving to ensure that all members of civil society are represented and heard in the UPR process. It aims to foster an inclusive, diverse and full participation in all human rights mechanisms, and further the improvement of human rights and democracy on the ground. UPR Info Asia wishes to thank the British Embassy in Bangkok for hosting the International Day of Democracy Reception and for providing a safe space for fruitful discussions.