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Thailand / Freedom of expression: UN expert recommends amendment of lèse majesté laws

GENEVA (10 October 2011) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, today urged the Government of Thailand to amend its laws on lèse majesté. According to Section 112 of the Thai penal code, ‘whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir to the throne or the Regent shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.’

“I urge Thailand to hold broad-based public consultations to amend section 112 of the penal code and the 2007 Computer Crimes Act so that they are in conformity with the country’s international human rights obligations,” the expert said. “The recent spike in lèse majesté cases pursued by the police and the courts shows the urgency to amend them.”

The Computer Crimes Act has also been used as a de facto lèse majesté law, which can carry a sentence of up to five years of imprisonment for any views expressed via the Internet in relation to the monarchy deemed to be a threat to national security.

“The threat of a long prison sentence and vagueness of what kinds of expression constitute defamation, insult, or threat to the monarchy, encourage self-censorship and stifle important debates on matters of public interest, thus putting in jeopardy the right to freedom of opinion and expression,” La Rue said. “This is exacerbated by the fact that the charges can be brought by private individuals and trials are often closed to the public.”

The Special Rapporteur highlighted that Thailand has been a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights since 1996, which contains legally binding human rights obligations, including the obligation to fully guarantee the right of all individuals to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds.

La Rue acknowledged that the exercise of the right to freedom of expression carries with it special duties and responsibilities. For this reason, under certain exceptional circumstances, the right may be limited, including to protect the reputation of individuals and to protect national security.

However, to prevent any abuse of this exceptional rule for purposes beyond the intended aim, any law that limits the right to freedom of expression must be clear and unambiguous regarding the specific type of expression that is prohibited, and proven to be necessary and proportionate for the intended purposes.

“The Thai penal code and the Computer Crimes Act do not meet these criteria. The laws are vague and overly broad, and the harsh criminal sanctions are neither necessary nor proportionate to protect the monarchy or national security,” the expert noted.

The Special Rapporteur also raised concerns over the 2007 Computer Crimes Act and its use by the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, in cooperation with the Royal Thai Army, to reportedly block hundreds of thousands of websites that contain commentary on the Thai monarchy.

“I have raised my concerns* regarding the incompatibility of lèse majesté laws with Thailand’s international human rights obligations over the course of my mandate,” said La Rue, noting that concerns regarding lèse majesté laws were also raised during the consideration of the situation of human rights in Thailand through the UN Universal Periodic Review in Geneva on Friday.

“In this regard, I am willing to engage constructively with the Government of Thailand, as well as the Law Reform Commission, whose task is, among other things, to propose reforms to harmonize Thailand’s national laws with international human rights standards,” said the expert.

Frank La Rue (Guatemala) was appointed as Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression in August 2008 by the United Nations Human Rights Council. As Special Rapporteur, he is independent from any government or organization and serves in his individual capacity.

(*) For the most recent lèse majesté cases brought to the attention of the Government of Thailand by the Special Rapporteur, see A/HRC/17/27/Add.1, paras.2114-2156: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/FreedomOpinion/Pages/Annual.aspx

Learn more about the mandate and work of the Special Rapporteur: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/FreedomOpinion/Pages/OpinionIndex.aspx

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/ccpr.htm

OHCHR Country Page – Thailand: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/AsiaRegion/Pages/THIndex.aspx

The Universal Periodic Review of Thailand: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/UPR/PAGES/THSession12.aspx

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