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Cambodian Government Defames UN Representative

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The report of the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General for human rights in Cambodia, detailing massive human rights abuses in the country, was sharply criticised by the government of Cambodia. The government must cease its harassment of the UN representative and swiftly implement his recommendations. 

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, in response to a UN Special Representative’s visit to Cambodia last week, announced on national radio that his visit was “unnecessary, unwelcome and bent on destroying Cambodia’s international reputation in the interest of collecting his own salary”. Furthering the personal attack, he added, “You can come here, but I do not need you. If I live to be more than 1,000 years old, I will still never meet with you, so please do not come to see me. The prime minister is not obliged to meet you.” 1

While entirely unacceptable, this reaction is not unexpected considering that the relationship between the Cambodian government and the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General for human rights in Cambodia (SRSG), Professor Yash Ghai, has always been at odds. Since his report exposing systematic human rights abuses in the country—including the lack of an independent and transparent judiciary, impunity, threats and restrictions on human rights defenders, and land grabbing—issued in March 2006, the relationship has been particularly strained. The report provoked criticism from the government who described him as “totally deranged”.

The purpose of his third official visit to Cambodia from 29 to 31 May 2007 was to make updates on the human rights situation in Cambodia and obtain official comments on his initial report, which he will present at the fifth session of the UN Human Rights Council this month in Geneva, 12 June 20072.

Much to his disappointment, the SRSG reported that his request to meet with senior government officials, especially Prime Minister Hun Sen, was ignored by all but one government official, Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister, Sar Kheng, who did not deny that human rights abuses existed, but said the report was “unfair, biased and failed to acknowledge any progress the government had made” 3.

The major concerns and recommendations from Ghai’s report have not changed, focusing on the same issues, such as the lack of independent and transparent judiciary, threats and restrictions on human rights defenders, impunity and land grabbing.

The Cambodian government uses the judiciary as a tool to enjoy immunity for breaches of the law, while innocent people become victims of the legal system at the instigation of the government. The legal system becomes a principal agency of oppression.

For example, the Constitutional Council, responsible for protecting and interpreting the Constitution, was reluctant to challenge government legislation by approving the Law on the Status of National Assembly Members in November 2006, even though it violated the constitutional guarantees of parliamentary immunity provisions and the right to freedom of expression. The Supreme Council of Magistracy has also been unable to protect judges or prosecutors from political interference.

Organisations defending, advocating or monitoring human rights are under consistent attack, particularly the intimidation of and illegal restriction on trade union movements. Professor Ghai claims that the government is threatened by demonstrations and reacts harshly to activities that are critical of its policies and practices. Article 37 and 41 of the Constitution allows the right to strike, to peaceful demonstrations and freedom of assembly.

Murders of politicians, trade unionists, journalists and other Cambodians active in political and public life remain unresolved. Professor Ghai expressed regret on the Appeal Court’s decision on 12 April 2007 to uphold the conviction against Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun by the Phnom Penh Municipal Courts to 20 years imprisonment for the murder of trade union leader Chea Vichea. Both men affirm their innocence, claiming they were tortured into confessing the crime. The SRSG also issued a statement expressing dismay over the assassination of trade union leader Hy Vuthy on 24 February 2007, stating “there must be no impunity for the murderer this time”.

Continuous land grabbing, illegal or coercive sale and economic land concessions especially indigenous’ groups land is another human rights concern. While Professor Ghai praises the country’s economic growth, he warns that in the pursuit of growth, human rights and equity can not be ignored. He states that “[e]conomic land concessions…have compromised and destroyed the livelihoods of rural [and indigenous] communities in favor of the enrichment of a few connected to the political establishment”.

Many recommendations are provided to address these issues of human rights abuses in Cambodia, some of which include:

  • Law and judicial reform, such as strengthening and protecting the Constitutional Council, Supreme Council of Magistracy and the judicial system as a whole by adopting measures that guarantee their independence, impartiality and effectiveness.
  • Protect freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in accordance with the Constitution and international instruments. Moreover, ensure that law enforcement officials disperse gatherings and demonstrations only if necessary, using force as the last resort.

A thorough, impartial and credible investigation into the murder of Chea Vichea and to prosecute those responsible. This recommendation should be implemented in all cases of human rights violations in the past and present.

And forced evictions and ban economic land concessions and other concessions that do not comply with the Land Law and in areas of primary forest. Establish a mechanism protecting the environment through the participation of the people and the protection of indigenous peoples’ land rights.

In order to begin to address the endemic human rights violations occurring in the country, Cambodia must consider the recommendations in the Special Representative report, establishing a mechanism for their swift implementation. Cambodia must respect visits from the SRSG and facilitate his presence in a professional manner.