Those peace agreements have provided for, among other things, a temporary administration of Cambodia by the U.N. and close monitoring of the human rights situation in Cambodia by the U.N. Human Rights Commission, including, if necessary, by the appointment of a Special Rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia. Since the end of that U.N. administration in 1993, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights opened a field office and the U.N. secretary-general appointed a special representative for human rights in Cambodia to help the country meet its human rights obligations, as well as to monitor the human rights situation.
However, the Cambodian government, which has since been effectively run by the Cambodian People’s Party, formerly a communist party, has not been happy with the U.N. human rights mandate. The relationships between the government and the high commissioner’s field office, on the one hand, and the secretary-general’s special representative, on the other, have been characterized by continued conflicts.
These conflicts have become open and very acrimonious in recent years, when the Cambodian government openly attacked the incumbent special representative, Professor Yash Ghai from Kenya, following the latter’s reports and statements criticizing the government’s failure to honor its obligations. The government has called once for Ghai’s sacking and, having failed, refused to cooperate with him and also threatened to close down the field office.
The U.N. human rights mandate is now being reviewed in the current session of the Human Rights Council beginning this week. This review has caused a lot of anxiety in Cambodia’s civil society, as they fear the mandate could end. There is a risk that the Cambodian government would not only cease honoring its human rights obligations but also that any human rights gain achieved since 1993 would be reversed.
The U.N. mandate has contributed to improving a certain number of human rights. The rights of women and children are much better, although violence against women, woman trafficking and child labor remain serious national issues. More Cambodian women are playing an active role in public affairs, and school enrollment of children and girls is higher than before.
The press has more freedom. Legal and judicial reforms have been undertaken, though at a very slow pace. Codes of procedure have been enacted and there is more compliance with them as the police force and judicial officers have gained better technical expertise and training, although the justice system and the police still have a lot of flaws and shortcomings. Resorting to torture and ill-treating accused persons is less frequent, although crowded prisons, lack of hygiene and inadequate food rations remain big problems.
However, despite these positive developments, the Cambodian government has yet to honor many fundamental rights enumerated in the peace agreements. Over recent years, there has been a reverse in the freedom of assembly and association when, in the past, peaceful public demonstrations and protests were practically banned and force was used to enforce it.
As was observed in the latest electoral process, political control of the media persists; the arrest and killing of journalists as well as threats and intimidation continue and at least one journalist has fled the country fearing personal security.
There is no rule of law yet as the judiciary has remained under executive control of the rich and the powerful. As Ghai observed, “State authorities, as well as companies and politically well-connected individuals, show scant respect for the rule of law,” and that the courts and legal profession “have failed the people of Cambodia woefully.”
There is little respite from deprivation of private property without just compensation as the rich and the powerful have often connived to grab land from the poor and the weak. It has been reported that some 150,000 Cambodians are facing the risk of being forcibly evicted from their homes and lands to make way for development or city beautification. Ghai observed that such people are living in fear: “fear of the state, fear of political and economic saboteurs, fear of greedy individuals and corporations, fear of the police and the courts.”
Moreover, the Cambodian government has not fully honored the right of all Cambodian citizens who undertake activities to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms. It has frequently obstructed human rights defenders who frequently face threats and intimidation, or even death. Furthermore, the government has already planned to enact a law to curb the activities of human rights nongovernmental organizations.
These organizations, which have actively promoted human rights, the rule of law and democracy, are at the mercy of the government. There are as yet no national institutions for democracy and the rule of law that are functional, independent and impartial that can protect the rights of Cambodian citizens.
Due to the absence of such institutions and the weakness of civil society organizations, the U.N. human rights mandate is necessary, both for the protection and promotion of human rights and for the development of those institutions in Cambodia.
The Cambodian government must offer a more effective alternative before it calls for an end to its obligations under the Paris Peace Agreements.
(Lao Mong Hay is a senior researcher at the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong. He was previously director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and a visiting professor at the University of Toronto in 2003. In 1997, he received an award from Human Rights Watch and the Nansen Medal in 2000 from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.)