BANGKOK (AP) — The United Nations joined international rights groups Thursday in criticizing a decision by Thailand's military government to invoke a law that gives the junta chief near-absolute authority without any accountability.

Junta chief and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha on Wednesday lifted martial law, which he imposed shortly before taking power in a coup last year, and instead invoked Article 44 of a junta-imposed interim constitution, which allows him to take any measures to promote public order and unity. Thai officials said martial law was lifted because of foreign pressure.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said giving Prayuth unfettered authority "clearly leaves the door wide open to serious violations of fundamental human rights." His statement, issued in Geneva, noted that Article 44 not only effectively allows Prayuth to issue any legislative, executive or judicial order, but "also annihilates freedom of expression" by giving him extensive censorship powers.

"In effect, this means the sweeping away of all checks and balances on the power of the government, rendering the lifting of martial law meaningless," he said.

Both martial law and Article 44 provide legal underpinnings for actions taken in the name of law and order. But while martial law defines acceptable actions, such as arrests without warrants, censorship and bans on public gatherings, Article 44 is vaguer and more broadly worded, allowing the junta chief to take any action he deems necessary not only to maintain order but also "for the benefit of reform in any field and to strengthen public unity and harmony."

Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, a legal expert, said at a news conference Thursday that the junta, called the National Council for Peace and Order, will use Article 44 for three purposes: unity and reconciliation, reforms or preparation for reforms, and prevention of plans to harm the country's security.

"If the normal measures to create unity and reconciliation are slow or ineffective, and there is a need to create unity and reconciliation, the head of the NCPO might invoke Article 44 to issue an order to make unity and reconciliation happen," he said. "But how will he order, I don't know, because the situation has not happened yet."

The junta's efforts at reconciliation so far have gone little beyond holding street fairs in the early days of its rule. It summons critics for what it calls "attitude adjustment" and has a hand-picked committee secretly drafting a new constitution.

Wissanu explained that the junta considered employing less draconian statutes than martial law, including the country's International Security Act and a declaration of a state of emergency, but they also sounded severe to foreign observers. Thailand's tourism industry has been especially concerned about the image such terms evoke, even though military rule has had little day-to-day effect on tourists.

The London-based human rights group Amnesty International called the replacement of martial law with Article 44 "little more than a cynical exercise in the preservation of military power."

"Nothing has changed — this is an attempt to cast a veil over its determination to continue using military might to crush dissent," Richard Bennett, the group's Asia-Pacific director, said in a statement Thursday.