|The Impact of Technology on Human Rights: Global Case-studies (UNU, 1993, 322 pages)|
|3. Technology and human rights: critical implications for Thailand|
The term "human rights" raises different interpretations in Thai society. In past decades, it was much influenced by the political struggles to cast off the vestiges of authoritarianism in Thailand. In the 1970s, a student-led movement managed to oust a dictatorial regime, but was later crushed by a military-led backlash. The advocacy of human rights during that era was very much based upon the call for democracy and freedom of expression. The aspirations of the time gave a political meaning to the term "human rights" as an umbrella for self-determination. It provided justification for protection of the advocates of democracy, and for the release of political prisoners.3
The present government, led by General Chatichai Choonhavan, is the first to have an elected prime minister for many years.4 The political dynamics have changed, and generally it may be said that political rights are now respected to a large extent. While military pressures still pervade the intricate political machinery, most political prisoners have been released from prison. Those who remain in prison tend to be cases of lèse majesté or ideological cases, whose numbers are limited. In 1990, there was the thorny issue of press freedom, as there remained on record various laws that conferred excessive powers on the executive to close down newspapers. Particular reference must be made to Revolutionary Decree No. 42.5 Auspiciously, the setting became more liberal at the end of 1990, when the decree was abrogated by the government.
On the other hand, beyond the political spectrum, there is a whole array of socio-economic and cultural issues which have come to the fore in recent years.
In 1990, a bill to provide social security to workers was in a state of uncertainty for a while, owing to the conflict between different interests. However, towards the end of the year the bill was passed, and a social security system is now being introduced for employees. As already noted, poverty, particularly in rural areas, is rampant, and the gap between the rich and the poor seems to be increasing. Collateral to this, environmental decline, which is often conditioned by and is a consequence of poverty, has begun to affect Thai society. A freak mudslide in 1988, due in part to illegal logging, and a rare hurricane in 1989 which caused several hundred deaths, pointed to the relationship between natural disasters, the degradation of natural resources, poverty, and vested interests.
Evidently, the scope of human rights in Thai understanding now goes beyond merely political questions. There are issues of development and under-development which raise questions concerning a wider dimension of human rights.6 In a way, it parallels the global interest in the right to development, defined by the 1986 General Assembly Declaration as constituting "an inalienable human right by virtue of which every human person and all people are entitled to participate in, contribute to and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realised." 7
In passing, one should note that Thailand voted for the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, since then she has rarely acceded to international human rights instruments. For example, she has not become a party to the 1966 human rights Covenants. The reason seems to be the perception that to accede to external instruments would be to invite scrutiny which may be detrimental to national security and executive discretion. However, beyond governmental circles, non-governmental entities often voice concerns on human rights issues by reference to international standards.
For the purpose of this study, it is this setting which influences the analysis of the various sectors concerned. An understanding of the context in which one is not necessarily invoking remedies for human rights violations once they have occurred is also required. An equally important consideration is preventive strategies which tackle the root causes of human rights abuses, such as the provision of aid and services to the needy. There is the added consideration that one is not only looking to laws and policies as sanctions against those who distort human rights - one is also concerned with other laws and policies of a facilitative nature, e.g. to provide incentives for development and change.
Complementary to this, one should not simply refer to justiciable rights, i.e. rights to be invoked in courts with appurtenant judicial remedies. This is all the more important because in developing countries the mass base of the population tends to be distant, mentally and physically, from the courts and lawyers, who are seen by them as expensive and time-consuming.
One aims at making an impact not merely via the formal legal system but equally via the ability of any institutions or personnel holding the reins of power to ensure more responsiveness to the needs of the population. This includes not only the government itself but also the private business sector. One likewise looks for alternative means of advocating societal change, e. g. non-governmental organizations and the mass media. A key consideration is to promote more grass-roots initiatives and people's participation in the process of development planning, implementation, benefit-sharing, and evaluation.
It follows from this reasoning that one is not referring solely to the role of those organizations which identify themselves as promoters of human rights in the political sense. One is also projecting a key role for organizations which do not necessarily see themselves as directly involved in human rights matters. This includes, in particular, many local non-governmental organizations dealing with development aid and assistance, for example, satisfying the basic needs of food, shelter, and health of the rural population.
In this respect, we can hark back to the wisdom of the following comment made during the First United Nations Development Decade (1970s), when the exhortation to states to improve their GNP at the macroeconomic level, without sufficient regard to income distribution and resource reallocation among the population in pursuit of equity, was subject to criticism. It warned as follows:
One of the greatest dangers in development policy lies in the tendency to give to the more material aspects of growth an overriding and disproportionate emphasis. The end may be forgotten in preoccupation with the means. Human rights may be submerged and human beings seen only as instruments of production rather than as free entities for whose welfare and cultural advance the increased production is intended.8
The reorientation of thought affecting the present study is encapsulated in the following yardsticks later propounded by the UN:
1. The realisation of the potentialities of the human person in harmony with the community should be seen as the central purpose of development;
2. The human person should be regarded as the subject and not the object of the development process;
3. Development requires the satisfaction of both material and non-material basic needs; 4. Respect for human rights is fundamental to the development process;
5. The human person must be able to participate fully in shaping his own reality; 6. Respect for the principles of equality and non-discrimination is essential; and
7. The achievement of a degree of individual and collective self-reliance must be an integral part of the process.9