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Ending U.N. mandate imperils human rights

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February 14, 2008

By LAO MONG HAY
UPI Asia Online

Column: Rule by Fear

HONG KONG, China, The Cambodian government is bound by the Paris Peace Agreements that were concluded in 1991 to end a protracted war in the country. Under these agreements, a field office of the U.N. high commissioner for human rights was established in Cambodia, and the U.N. secretary-general appointed a special representative, all to monitor human rights conditions and help the Cambodian government honor its obligations under these agreements.

From the beginning, however, there has been friction between this U.N. field office and special representative on the one hand, and the Cambodian government on the other. The former has issued reports and statements critical of the latter’s human rights performance and its disregard for recommendations on improving human rights.

The friction came into the open in 2006 and has since grown worse, as the Cambodian government has mounted continual attacks on the fourth special representative, Professor Yash Ghai from Kenya, for his public reports and statements critical of the human rights situation in Cambodia.

In a speech to a Human Rights Day rally on Dec. 10, Ghai, during his fourth visit to Cambodia, noted among other things a psychosis of fear among numerous communities and families, especially among those facing eviction due to land-grabbing: “fear of the state, fear of political and economic saboteurs, fear of greedy individuals and corporations, fear of the police and the courts.”

In a statement at the end of his visit, he added that “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.”

Hun Sen, prime minister of Cambodia, took Ghai’s remarks as an “insult” to the Cambodian people and government, and lashed out at him with diatribes, calling Ghai “deranged” and “a long-term tourist,” for instance. He also threatened to close the U.N. field office. He then informed U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that the Cambodian government “is now considering whether the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative is ‘still necessary’ as stipulated” in the Paris Peace Agreements. Hun Sen urged the United Nations to spend the money for human rights in Cambodia elsewhere.

However, in all their attacks on Ghai, Hun Sen and his officials have not disputed the veracity of his reports and statements on human rights conditions in the country. Reality has only confirmed what Ghai has noted. Seventeen years after the signing of the peace agreements the Cambodian government has not been able to honor many of its main obligations under these agreements. It has not taken effective measures to ensure that the policies and practices of ill-treatment and repression of the past shall never be allowed to return as stipulated in the agreements.

Although the Cambodian government has ratified many relevant international instruments, it has not ratified the First Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights whereby aggrieved persons can bring cases to the U.N. Human Rights Committee for adjudication if they are not satisfied with rulings by national adjudication bodies.

Furthermore, it has not established state institutions for liberal, parliamentary democracy and the rule of law worthy of their names. From top to bottom, all these institutions are under the control of the ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party. State power, as Ghai remarked in 2006, is very much concentrated in the hands of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is known as “the strongman of Cambodia.”

Moreover, there is no independent judiciary to adjudicate and enforce human rights for aggrieved individuals. This legal institution is very much under political control as “99 percent of judges and prosecutors” are members of the ruling party. It is also widely acknowledged to be very corrupt as well. In addition, there is not an independent national human rights institution, ombudsman, anti-corruption body or police oversight agency which could help aggrieved individuals attain redress and bring human rights violators to justice.

Many of the fundamental rights enumerated in the peace agreements, such as freedom of assembly and association, due process and equality before the law and protection from the arbitrary deprivation of property or deprivation of private property without just compensation, have not been observed, respected or protected. Peaceful public demonstrations are practically banned. Land-grabbing is rife. In 2007, it affected more than 5,000 families who were forcibly evicted from their homes and land without just compensation.

The Cambodian government moreover has not supported the right of all Cambodian citizens to undertake activities which would promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms. Instead, human rights defenders frequently face threats and intimidation, or even death, when the government sees them as aligning with the opposition.

In such circumstances, and so long as Cambodia has not ratified the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, nor honored its human rights obligations under the peace agreements nor established proper institutions for liberal, parliamentary democracy and the rule of law, especially an independent and impartial judiciary, the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative for human rights in Cambodia is very necessary.

Whether Hun Sen and his government like him or not, this special representative, together with the field office of the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, remain as the last and only bulwark for the protection of human rights in Cambodia.

Appeasing strongman Hun Sen at this juncture by ending Ghai’s nomination, closing the U.N. field office and/or terminating the U.N. human rights mandate altogether would remove this bulwark and imperil human rights in Cambodia. The policies and practices of ill-treatment and repression of the past that the peace agreements had set out to prevent would then be free to terrorize the country with all the consequences the long-suffering Cambodian people know only too well.

(Lao Mong Hay is currently 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.)

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Written by Kolbot Khmer

February 18, 2008 at 9:33 am

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