ABC Radio, Australia
It has been a tempestuous week for Cambodian human rights activists. The United Nations Special Representative resigned a week ago citing a lack of support for his work in Cambodia, and a fresh mandate was drawn up for the UN’s role in human rights work in the country. A human rights activist survived bullet fire on his way to work, and the rights agency Licadho released a report criticising the government’s record. Now there are concerns the UN mission in the country may be losing its credibility.
Presenter: Sonia Randhawa
Speakers: Former UN Special Representative to Cambodia Professor Yash Ghai; Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association director Thun Saray
RANDHAWA: The United Nations has played a prominent role in Cambodia since the 1991 peace accord. But a quarter of a century after Cambodians officially ushered in a new democratic era, there are persistent concerns about human rights in the kingdom.
The new report from rights agency LICADHO looks at the threats faced by those defending human rights over 2007. It says that while some activists say they’ve received death threats for their work in Cambodia, there have been no arrests and no prosecutions as a result. The poor treatment identified by Licadho extends from local NGO workers to UN Special Representative Yash Ghai.
LICADHO: Throughout 2007, some of the government’s strongest vitriol was reserved for UN Special Representative Yash Ghai. Ghai had already fallen foul of the government when he criticised the centralisation of power in Cambodia shortly after being appointed in 2006, and the Prime Minister responded by describing him as “rude” and a “long-term tourist” who “comes without knowing anything.” ….As the year ended, the Prime Minister announced that he made a formal complaint to the UN Secretary-General about Ghai, saying that anyone who supported the Special Representative’s latest human rights report was “the vilest person.”
RANDHAWA: The report’s publication comes as Cambodian NGOs have expressed growing scepticism over the role being played in the country by the UN. Professor Yash Ghai resigned his position last week, accusing the government of obstructing his work, but also criticising his UN employers for failing to provide him with enough support. Now, his role’s been downgraded; the UN has replaced him with a Special Rapporteur. Thun Saray from the human rights association ADHOC.
SARAY: It is a problematic mandate also according to my opinion. It was new special reporter will be appointed and will work closely, collaboratively with the government. If the government have the political will to collaborate with them, I think it’s good. It’s a dream for us. But either he or she could not see any progress happen with the collaborative approach, our Cambodian Government could reject the mandate, the NGO, the special rapporteur would simply try again like Yash Ghai-style, the new Special Rapporteur will have the problem again with our Cambodian Government and our government they say that no, we don’t need you any more and please stop the mandate.
RANDHAWA: I spoke to Professor Ghai, who gave more detail on his reasons for leaving Cambodia:
GHAI: I felt that I was not getting sufficient support from either the international community and more particularly the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and their lack of support made it very hard for me to mobilise opinion against the government for its oppression of rights and I felt that I was not really being terribly effective in the absence of their support.
RANDHAWA: In response, Radio Australia received the following prepared statement from Christophe Peschoux who – unlike Professor Ghai, who was directly employed by the UN Secretary-General, reports instead to the UN Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
PESCHOUX: The resolution supported by the Cambodian Government was adopted Wednesday by the Council for Human Rights. It requests the council continue to monitor the human rights situation in Cambodia, via the appointment for one year of a Special Rapporteur tasked to assess progress, outline areas of priority, and foster dialogue and cooperation with the government, civil society and all actors involved in the reconstruction of the state of the rule of law in Cambodia.
We welcome very much this outcome and we look forward to continuing to work closely with the Special Rapporteur, the government and civil society in a spirit of partnership, mutual respect and effective cooperation.
RANDHAWA: But Professor Ghai says the Government of Cambodia lacks the political will to institute the necessary changes.
GHAI: My deep conviction is that the government has absolutely no interest in the promotion of human rights, the whole state exists on systematic violations of political, economic, social rights. Political processes highly looted by oppression or opponents, expression of independent media. And I really can’t see that there is going to be any change of heart just because there is a new representative.
Radio Australia was unable to contact the Cambodian government for a response.