The United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) established in 2000 reach their deadline in 2015, and while several are on track to being achieved, the UN acknowledges progress has been uneven within and across countries. One major problem is that the MDGs overlook the significance of the relationship between rule of law and sustainable development. In recognition of this, Thailand is taking a lead role to encourage the inclusion of the rule of law in the post-2015 Development Agenda.
Many will ask why Thailand – a country whose own challenges with the rule of law and sustainable development are widely recognised – is taking the initiative in opening up global discussions about the rule of law and credible justice systems.
After all, the current political impasse here demonstrates the damaging effects that a weak rule of law can have on the quality of democracy and, in turn, the relationship between citizens and government. Lack of trust, frustration with legal institutions deemed compromised, and genuine anger about injustices which have not been redressed, have created an atmosphere of mistrust and ultimately a crisis of governance. Transparency International, an organisation that measures corruption, ranked Thailand 88th out of 176 countries in 2012, a decline from the previous year. Nonetheless, Thailand recognises the importance of improving the quality of its democracy, including strengthening its governance and rule-of-law institutions. It is through these experiences that Thailand is uniquely positioned to raise these issues on a global level.
Access to credible legal systems not only provides opportunities for justice but can also recognise and seek to address existing socio-economic disparities. For example, the victims of many domestic violence cases are women who are economically marginalised. In response, government policies in many countries have begun to include funding beyond free legal services. Thailand demonstrates this priority through the provision of financial assistance for accommodation to support the disadvantaged throughout the legal process. This helps provide access to justice because it supports those who might otherwise not be able to pursue the case due to economic constraints.
Strong legal systems can foster domestic and foreign investment that is both ethical and profitable. As exemplified at the recent UN High Level Dialogue on Migration 2013, a consensus emerged amongst member states that migration is critical for development. Thailand’s status as an upper-middle-income country with continued economic growth – despite the setbacks of the 2011 floods – makes it a strategic destination for both foreign companies’ investment and migrant workers. Vulnerability to migrant smuggling and people-trafficking pose significant risks and challenges that Thailand is confronting. Protecting workers’ rights and enhancing their access to justice, among other things, will reinforce the desirability of the country as a destination for opportunity and development.
The rule of law provides accountability to safeguard against the arbitrary use of power and encourages responsible policymaking. A 2012 World Bank report illustrates that economic inequality has remained high, though stable, over the past 20 years as the government’s distribution of resources remains centred on Bangkok. To paint a clearer picture, the Northeast region is home to over 34 per cent of the country’s population, yet only receives 6 per cent of public expenditure, while Bangkok, with only 17 per cent of the populace, receives 74 per cent of public money. The UNDP Human Achievement Index (HAI) shows that the Northeast ranks last in all of Thai regions in health, education and transportation/communication indicators, which assess the delivery of public services. A stronger implementation of the rule of law would begin to provide more accountability while addressing such disparities.
By acknowledging and understanding its own challenges and initiating the tough conversations about how it can move forward, Thailand is looking to position itself as a strong voice on why the rule of law is essential to sustainable development, economic growth and protecting human rights.
For example, Thailand has begun to contribute to global and regional discussions that promote the rule of law and criminal justice reform. The government recently launched resolutions with international bodies such as the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, leading to the passage of “The rule of law, crime prevention and criminal justice in the United Nations Development Agenda beyond 2015” by the UN General Assembly.
In addition, under the leadership of HRH Princess Bajrakitiyabha, Thailand led efforts for the adoption of the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders, popularly referred to as “the Bangkok Rules”, by the UN General Assembly in 2010. Countries ranging from Panama to the Philippines are beginning to adopt these principles via training hosted by the UN so they become a valuable and useful tool in improving the conditions of women prisoners, in line with a comprehensive and universal vision of human rights.
At a national level, Thailand’s Government Policy Statement clearly describes the ideal state of affairs relating to the equitable law and justice that it is striving towards in order to resolve the problems it currently faces, especially the issue of regaining national unity and harmony in Thai society.
Thailand’s initiatives underline the increasing role that the “global South” is taking to promote a new international development agenda, even though there are clear challenges in implementing the rule of law in the Asean region. The need to harmonise laws between countries with vastly different legal systems in order to ensure cooperation in joint-investigations as well as inform citizens of differences in laws and criminal justice proceedings are all tasks that have yet to be completed. To enable Asean member states to do so would require capacity building in these areas.
These challenges indicate the importance of Thailand’s role in raising awareness about the rule of law and sustainable development and why, today, the Thai government, through the Ministry of Justice and the newly established Thailand Institute of Justice, will host world leaders, international academics and policy practitioners at the first Bangkok Dialogue on the Rule of Law. This international conference will begin what will hopefully turn into a series of substantive conversations which can create momentum for the issues inclusion in the Post-2015 Development Agenda and position Thailand as a key voice in turning this into a reality.
In summary, the rule of law offers a way for sustainable development to become commonplace. Something that Thailand undoubtedly needs as it looks to position itself for continued prosperity in an increasingly globalised world.
Kittipong Kittayarak is permanent secretary of the Justice Ministry.