Cambodia: Leading Rights Groups Support UN Envoy

Published: Tue 18 Dec 2007 07:29 PM
Cambodia: Leading Rights Groups Support UN Envoy
Five leading international human rights organizations today called upon the Cambodian government to respect its international human rights commitments as well as United Nations officials mandated to monitor them.
The five organizations - Human Rights Watch, the Asian Human Rights Commission, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and the World Organisation against Torture (OMCT) - expressed deep concern about the Cambodian government's ongoing unwillingness to engage with the UN secretary-general's special representative on human rights in Cambodia, Professor Yash Ghai.
Following critical remarks by the special representative at the end of a 10-day fact-finding mission to Cambodia, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on December 12 called Ghai - a distinguished professor of constitutional law in Kenya who has been special representative since 2005 - a "human rights tourist" and vowed to never meet him.
In his closing press conference on December 10, Ghai raised concerns that the government is acting under the cover of "development" to justify widespread land grabbing and illegal forced evictions of Cambodia's urban and rural poor. He noted that communities forced off their land have little judicial recourse or legal protection because the judiciary is corrupt and the Land Law is not properly implemented. Ghai noted that victims are increasingly ending up in prison for trying to defend their land and their human rights. (See Note #1)
"Professor Ghai has drawn attention to critical concerns shared by the wider international human rights community," said Basil Fernando, executive director of the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission. "There's no denying the facts. Expropriation of the land of Cambodia's poor is reaching a disastrous level, the courts are politicized and corrupt, and impunity for human rights violators remains the norm."
Government officials charged that the UN envoy was trying to incite Cambodians to oppose the government and rejected as "inaccurate" and overly negative Ghai's assessment of Cambodia's rights situation.
"Yash Ghai is not an isolated maverick. All of his findings have been repeatedly raised in the past by local and international rights groups, UN agencies, and bilateral and multilateral donors," said Sara Colm, senior researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch. "Donors who commit millions of dollars to Cambodia each year for poverty alleviation, judicial reform and economic development should not condone government policies that result in thousands of Cambodians losing their homes, their livelihoods, and in some cases their lives."
A Foreign Ministry spokesman told the press on December 11 that government officials were unable to meet Ghai during his visit because they were "busy trying to develop the country."
In Ratanakiri province, armed soldiers and police attempted to disrupt a meeting between Ghai and indigenous villagers facing confiscation of their land, claiming Ghai had no right to meet villagers because he had not received written permission from local authorities. Ghai's terms of reference authorize him to travel freely within Cambodia and to visit prisons without prior approval.
"When gun-toting soldiers threaten a UN official, one can only imagine how much more difficult it is for impoverished farmers in the countryside to assert their rights," said Eric Sottas, director of the Geneva-based World Organization against Torture.
"Defenders of economic and social rights in Cambodia are also facing high risks, particularly when they defend the victims of forced evictions," said Souhayr Belhassen, president of the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights.
In a public speech on December 12, Hun Sen said that Ghai's missions to Cambodia only "caused trouble" and criticized him for not focusing on problems in Kenya, which he said was "one hundred times worse" than Cambodia. Hun Sen extended his criticism of the UN's human rights mechanisms by admonishing the United Nations to stop issuing negative reports about Burma and said that Cambodia would defend Burma at the UN Human Rights Council, making him the first world leader to express support for the Burmese government's recent crackdown.
"Hun Sen's attacks on Professor Ghai were outrageous, especially since the prime minister did not question the veracity of Ghai's findings," said Anselmo Lee, executive director of Bangkok-based FORUM-ASIA. "Hun Sen's statements show contempt not only for the United Nations, but also the Burmese democracy movement."
The 1991 Paris Agreements provided for the UN secretary-general to appoint a special envoy to monitor the human rights situation in Cambodia. As a party to the Paris Peace Agreements and numerous international human rights treaties, Cambodia has committed itself to respect and protect the rights of its population (see [English] or [Khmer]).
"Hun Sen's tirade against the UN is the latest in a long series of attacks and lack of cooperation with Ghai and the three UN Special Representatives who preceded him," said Fernando. "Rather than publicly rebuking the UN, the Cambodian government should meet with Yash Ghai and start seriously working on the recommendations included in his report."
Note #1
The Special Representative of the Secretary-General for human rights in Cambodia, Mr. Yash Ghai, concludes his fourth official visit to Cambodia
Phnom Penh 10 December 2007 - The Special Representative of the Secretary-General for human rights in Cambodia, Yash Ghai, concluded his fourth official visit to Cambodia today. The purpose of the visit was for the Special Representative to update himself on recent developments in advance of preparation of his next report to the United Nations Human Rights Council which will focus on the issues of rule of law and access to justice.
The Special Representative regrets that no members of the Royal Government of Cambodia were available to meet with him during the mission. The Special Representative is aware that he has been criticized by the Government for not taking its version of events sufficiently into account in his reports and presenting a view which it considers overly sympathetic to the Government's critics. In advance of this mission, meetings were requested with the Prime Minister, the Ministers of the Interior, Agriculture and Justice, the Co-Chairs of the Council for Legal and Judicial Reform, as well as the Chairman of the Government's Human Rights Committee. None of these meetings materialized. It is difficult to see how the Government's criticism of the Special Representative can be sustained, when it declines all opportunities to present its view. Nevertheless, the Special Representative remains willing to meet with the Government to discuss the human rights situation in Cambodia in a spirit of impartiality and openness.
During his stay, Mr. Ghai was able to meet with representatives of civil society, political parties, members of the legal profession, Cambodian and International Judges at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, United Nations agencies and the diplomatic community.
The Special Representative paid particular attention to the courts, the legal profession, and the prison system. He focused on the extent to which these institutions meet international norms and are able to uphold the rule of law and protect the rights of Cambodian citizens, especially vulnerable and disadvantaged groups. The Special Representative examined some aspects of criminal procedure. He looked in some detail at the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia, as much for their expected contribution to raising criminal procedure standards--and awareness of these standards amongst the general public--as for their contribution to ending impunity for human rights attrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979.
Mr. Ghai sought to obtain an in-depth understanding of the issues of housing evictions and land disputes, especially cases alleged to involve the unfair acquisition of land from communities. He traveled to Rattanakiri to obtain first-hand information on land disputes in the province and meet with community activists and their lawyers, as well as court and provincial government officials. He also paid a visit to the prison in Banlung to get a sense of the conditions in which prisoners are kept, and of the resources made available to the prison administration.
The Special Representative visited the Phnom Penh communities of Dey Krahorm and Group 78 who face the threat of being forced from their homes. He was deeply distressed to see the conditions in which people live, even in the heart of the capital city, and to learn of the fears of those faced with imminent eviction. The Special Representative regrets that his earlier recommendations for more equitable procedures to protect the rights of vulnerable groups had not been acted upon. State authorities as well as companies and politically well-connected individuals show scant respect for the law. This unprincipled approach to law has undermined the foundations of the rule of law.
It is not for the Special Representative to pronounce on the merits of cases before the courts. But it is very striking to note the people's lack of trust in those courts. People have little faith that they will get justice even if their case is heard. Ironically, even the rich and powerful apparently have little faith or patience - for they often meet legal claims with counter-charges of defamation or incitement, rather than allow the normal legal process to take its course. The Special Representative is gravely concerned at recent attempts to place restrictions of the ability of lawyers to represent their clients' best interests. In particular, the charges of incitement against legal aid lawyers represent an unwarranted attempt to criminalize the lawful activities of lawyers.
The courts and the legal profession have, or should have, a key role in protecting the rights of citizens. It is a cardinal principle that all are equal before the law. In reality, all countries face challenges in living up to the ideal. But in Cambodia that shortfall seems to have the proportions of a gulf. The system has failed the people of Cambodia woefully.
The Special Representative has been struck by the extent to which non-governmental organizations' space for action has been restricted in recent months. He heard many complaints of increased executive interference. This makes it harder for these bodies to play their own important role in upholding the rule of law - a role made even more important given the official court system's ineffectiveness in protecting rights. The NGO sector is not alone in living with fear and a sense of repression by an almost all-powerful executive.
The appropriation of land and evictions are sometimes justified as making way for "development". The reality seems to be that the poverty of some is worsened, while the wealth of others grows apace. The legal system seems to be the tool of the rich and the powerful, while the poor are further impoverished as the courts show no willingness to take a stand against manipulation and bribery.
These matters are not for Cambodians alone. The international community plays a very important role in the country. It is not enough to say "we must not interfere". It already "interferes" by its support for development projects, and its very significant financial support for the government's budget. The United Nations and the international community have an obligation to ensure that the system they are supporting does not violated the very norms that the international community purports to stand for.
On a more positive note, the Special Representative is pleased that the long-awaited Codes of Penal and Civil Procedure have finally entered into force and hopes that the implementation of the new procedures will provide an opportunity for the courts to apply international standards of justice in accordance with Cambodia's international obligations. Laws alone are not enough of course. The Special Representative hopes that the authorities will allow the law to be used to convict the guilty. Similarly, it is not for lack of laws that Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were convicted and remain in detention, despite convincing evidence that they are not guilty of the murder of Chea Vichea.
He also welcomes the recent accelerated progress at the Extraordinary Chambers. At the same time, certain developments, including the re-assignment by the Executive branch of government of one judge to another post and the allegations of corrupt recruitment practices, are causes for concern. The Special Representative hopes that the ECCC, as an integral part of the Cambodian court system, will strictly apply international standards and thereby set a positive example to be followed in the domestic courts. He discussed with judges and officials ways in which to make this a reality so that the ECCC positively influences the consciousness of the people as well as the functioning of the legal system. He feels, however, that the effectiveness of the ECCC in terms of ending impunity will be blunted if it limits its proceedings to a politically-agreed number of individuals.
The Special Representative will issue his next report early in 2008 and will present it to the Human Rights Council in Geneva in March 2008.
Note #2
Special Representative Of The United Nations Secretary General For Human Rights In Cambodia Issues Clarification.
Phnom Penh 17 December 2007: The Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General for Human Rights in Cambodia is issuing today the following clarification:
"The Special Representative is an independent expert appointed by the Secretary General of the United Nations. His mandate is to monitor the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in the country, to help the Government and the Cambodian people in ensuring that the Cambodian laws and the standards accepted by the State are effectively observed, foster international cooperation in the field of human rights, and report annually to the newly established United Nations Human Rights Council.
As Special Representative, he is not an employee of the United Nations and does not receive a salary. His work is pro bono. Mr. Yash Ghai is a professor of constitutional law and a human rights defender, with a lifelong experience in promoting rule of the law in many countries. He does not represent Kenya. He represents the human rights principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, of which Cambodia is a Member State, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Human Rights treaties, several of which have been ratified by Cambodia, and are part of Cambodian law.
The Special Representative does not intend to dialogue with the Government through the media. He has sought meetings with several ministers well in advance of his visit. They either did not respond or refused to meet him. In the absence of such meetings, he has described publicly his main concerns as he is duty bound to do. These concerns will be addressed in detail in his forthcoming report. He hopes that the Government will respond to the substance of his assessment. He is ready to discuss it in detail, and will listen to the views of the Government at any time. The door of dialogue must always remain open. To have dialogue one must have interlocutors and the Special representative will pursue his efforts in this direction.
An honest scrutiny of the reports of the Special Representatives since 1993, shows that progress in the area of the rule of the law and the administration of justice, where they occurred, were duly reported, as any fair assessment requires. At the same time, matters of concern, such as those reported during previous visits, have continued to be highlighted. These are serious concerns for the lives of many Cambodians. These issues will not go away. They deserve attention. As a Cambodian proverb goes, one cannot hide a dead elephant with a basket. The role of the Special Representative is to understand these concerns, to draw the Government's attention to them, and work with it, with the Cambodian people and the international community to address them.
Lastly, it is important to clarify that the Special Representative has not called for the international community to cut its support to Cambodia. Rather, he has encouraged Member States, as bound by the Charter of the United Nations, to pursue their assistance efforts, while playing a more critical role in recognising human rights realities in Cambodia, the understanding of which the Special Representative mandate aims at contributing."
End of statement.
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