Of all the ideas floated by the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) pushing for national reform, a proposal to merge the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) with the parliamentary Ombudsman is among the most controversial, stirring opposition from various factions.
Borwornsak Uwanno, chief of the CDC, and vice-chairman of the National Legislative Assembly, revealed the proposal early this year. He cited a King Prajadhipok's Institute study, which "found work redundancy between the two agencies".
The idea, which would see the establishment of 11-member Ombudsman and Rights Protection Office, prompted denunciations from the rights body as well as a large part of civil society. The current Ombudsman gave a half-hearted welcome to the idea.
While the CDC chairman insisted the merger is for the betterment of the two agencies and the public interest, many see the proposal as the kiss of death to the rights agency, which was established by a fully democratic constitution in 1997 — and later by the 2007 version.
Those who are against the merger idea have argued it won't work because the two agencies have different mandates. While the NHRC has the duty to examine overall complaints regarding human rights violations, the Ombudsman's mandate is limited to cases involving state agencies.
The merger will not only be a major setback to the rights agency, curbing its ability to protect the rights of those in need, but also to the country.
Human Rights Commissioner Niran Pitakwatchara is right in pointing out his agency exists also to ensure domestic mechanisms are held to international human rights standards. That part of the job would be diluted after the transformation.
It's true the NHRC's performance is far from perfect. This stems largely because of a shortage of manpower, given the agency's colossal mandate. But more importantly, it's because state agencies, especially those accused of trampling on people's rights, don't recognise its authority.
The NHRC under Amara Pongsapit has encountered a difficult time after the Geneva-based International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions recommended its ranking be downgraded to "B". The downgrade will take effect in one year if the NHRC fails to conform to the Paris Principles. This would lead to a poorer international standing and a weakened ability to present its views at the UN Human Rights Council.
So instead of transforming it into a new dubious identity, what is needed is to find ways to boost its efficiency, enable it to work at full capacity and to be independent from political interference.
In a meeting with the rights agency this week, the CDC's sub-committee on political reform pledged to listen to concerns from the parties involved before submitting a conclusion and recommendation to the CDC.
This pledge by the sub-committee is welcome. A review is necessary, and a U-turn is a must.
In fact, as a coup-installed body, with many people questioning its legitimacy, it's important that the CDC limits its work to laying the groundwork for reform. With martial law in place, the socio-political atmosphere is not open to widespread exchanges of opinions.
The CDC and the National Reform Council should know that while we give top priority to reform, we need to do it with transparency. And that cannot be achieved in a rush.