The case of British NGO worker Andy Hall, who was convicted on criminal charges in Thailand yesterday, has grabbed headlines around the world. But statistics show that local workers at NGOs face a much greater risk of prison or violence than foreigners.

A Bangkok court yesterday found Andy Hall, a long-time campaigner for marginalized workers in Thailand, guilty of criminal defamation. The charges stemmed from Hall’s research into the conditions of migrant workers. He was given a three-year suspended prison sentence and fined 150,000 Baht (US$4,300). He will not be jailed unless he breaks the terms of his probation.

Hall, 36, conducted research for a report by Finnish NGO Finnwatch on worker conditions in Thailand’s food production. He alleged workers at The Natural Fruit Company factory faced long hours and were being paid below minimum wage, among other abuses. The company sued Hall in 2013.

After the verdict, Hall tweeted, “Even takes many years, even we imprisoned, we will all receive justice in the end and so will migrant workers, the real focus of our fight.” [sic]

The conviction has drawn widespread condemnation from local and international human rights groups.

ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) and U.S.-based Human Rights Watch warn that the ruling could have a “chilling effect” on others trying to protect the rights of migrant workers and other vulnerable groups across Southeast Asia.

“The Thai authorities should be investigating alleged abuses by the companies employing these workers, not going after those working to uncover them,” said APHR Chairperson Charles Santiago, also a member of the Malaysian Parliament.

Human Rights Watch’s Asia Director Brad Adams says that in recent years, Thai officials and companies have frequently retaliated against individuals who report allegations of human rights violations.

The case also reflects the frequent use of criminal defamation laws to silence critics, the organizations say.

Hall’s situation, like that of Swedish rights activist Peter Dhalin – who was detained in China for weeks and paraded by state media before being expelled earlier this year – is of course worrying. This is not so much because the authoritarian regimes in Thailand – or China – have suddenly developed the hubris to take on foreigners, who hitherto enjoyed quasi-diplomatic immunity. But because these cases reflect authoritarian crackdowns, which are eroding civil society in both countries, have become so intense they have spilled into the international sphere.

In Thailand, ahead of the August referendum on constitutional reform, authorities went after people commenting on Facebook, journalists, and other so-called “activists” for opposing the country’s military regime. And in China, months before Dhalin was taken by authorities, a mass operation saw authorities abduct, detain or summon for questioning more than 300 people, mainly lawyers and activists.

In both countries, as in most parts of the world, the real risk is still predominantly faced by locals.

In the first eight months of 2016, national staff accounted for 95 percent of the fatalities and 97 percent of the injuries incurred by NGO workers, according to the International NGO Safety Organization – whose data relates to countries in Europe, Africa and the Middle East including war-torn Syria, Ukraine and Afghanistan. That is despite international NGOs accounting for about 70 percent of the incidents.

Statistics from U.K.-based Humanitarian Outcomes on major attacks on aid workers – including killings, kidnappings, and attacks that resulted in serious injury – tells a similar story. Out of a total of 287 aid worker victims in 2015, 269 were national workers, and 28 international. International NGO staff still suffered the most attacks.

Last month, a petition to the United Nations was launched, calling for it to grant protected legal status to humanitarian aid workers under international humanitarian law, and adopt a common international code of duty for NGOs, U.N. agencies and the Red Cross movement.

“We are professional aid workers, not martyrs,” the petition website says.

The website says that in the past five years, more than 2,000 aid workers were kidnapped, extorted, used as proxy targets, bombed, assaulted, shot or otherwise attacked for doing their jobs. It describes the response by governments, the U.N., donors, aid recipients and international organizations as “inadequate.”

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole