UN Envoy Departs With Barrage of Criticism

The U.N.’s envoy to Cambodia concluded her 10-day fact-finding visit on Wednesday with a barrage of criticism over alleged human rights violations, decrying political jailings, land evictions affecting poor families and the “simply unacceptable” routine roundups and detention of Phnom Penh’s vagrants.

In a parting jab at the government, Rhona Smith, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, rejected assertions from officials that her work amounted to “interference” that infringed on the country’s sovereignty.

The UN's special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, Rhona Smith, speaks at a press conference in Phnom Penh on Wednesday, marking the end of her 10-day fact-finding visit to the country. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
The UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, Rhona Smith, speaks at a press conference in Phnom Penh on Wednesday, marking the end of her 10-day fact-finding visit to the country. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

“Respect for human rights is an integral part of ensuring lasting peace. Human rights are not a threat to national security and human rights monitoring does not threaten sovereignty,” she said at a news conference in Phnom Penh ahead of her departure.

“The time for the government to blame the troubles of the last century for the situation today is surely over,” she said, apparently referencing the ruling party’s refrain in which officials blame poor performance on decades of civil war and brutality leading up to the 1980s.

Prime Minister Hun Sen did not meet with Ms. Smith during this visit, her third since assuming the role last year, which she attributed to his busy schedule with visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Cambodia inked a slew of investment deals with Beijing and signed 31 agreements with Mr. Xi, who pledged $237 million in aid, erased almost $90 million in state debt and offered nearly $15 million in military support.

China has notably also defended Cambodia against international criticism at U.N. forums, including Ms. Smith’s critical report at the U.N. Human Rights Council session in Geneva last month.

By contrast, Ms. Smith’s offer on Wednesday was a pledge of assistance to the country in “advising, monitoring and reporting on the human rights situation.”

“I am saddened by the deterioration in the political situation since my mission in March,” she said. “There is a deep loss of trust between the two principal political parties.”

Her visit included meetings with five government ministers as well as Keo Remy, the chair of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, and Pa Socheatvong, the governor of Phnom Penh.

She noted “a sense of willingness” among government officials to work toward improving the protection of human rights, but presented a long list of concerns over potential and ongoing violations.

Visiting Kompong Speu province, the site of prolonged disputes between residents and a CPP senator who owns sugarcane plantations there, she said she met “with many people who claimed to have lost their farmland, received inadequate compensation and are now destitute.”

“The situation is complicated,” Ms. Smith added. “Loss of land, however tenuous it may be, is a serious issue for those affected.”

She also raised the issue of injustice in the courts, which have been at the center of crackdowns on rights groups and the opposition party. CNRP President Sam Rainsy is in self-imposed exile in Paris over a defamation conviction, and the party’s vice president, Kem Sokha, has been sentenced to five months in prison, but remains free as appeals are pending.

Ms. Smith met with Mr. Sokha at the party’s headquarters in Phnom Penh, where he has been holed up since May after police attempted to arrest him for refusing to appear in court over an alleged prostitution case.

“There are many examples of the law being applied in an apparently discriminatory or politicized manner,” Ms. Smith said, citing the imprisoning of five current and former officers for rights group Adhoc in relation to Mr. Sokha’s case.

“Their charges should be proven or they should be released immediately with their case closed,” she said.

As part of her mission, Ms. Smith visited the capital’s Prey Sar prison, where more than 20 opposition officials and rights activists are being held, but she said she had been denied access to the Adhoc officers.

She expressed special concern about Phnom Penh’s Prey Speu social affairs center, which is often criticized for locking up the city’s homeless population and others, including sex workers and drug users, in inhumane conditions.

While Social Affairs Minister Vong Sauth had pointed to the improvements made to the facility, “there is no doubt that further expansive and dramatic improvements are necessary,” Ms. Smith said. “It is simply unacceptable to round up people from the streets.”

Ms. Smith said she was told that residents needed to be held for about a week for processing, but “most people I met had been there for considerably longer and were being held against their will.”

“That is not consistent with the concept of ‘drop in’ or with law,” she said.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said Ms. Smith was wrongly accusing the government based on selective opinions rather than Cambodia’s rule of law.

“I don’t accuse her because she doesn’t have enough information. She just flies in and flies out and makes a report. What’s that?” Mr. Siphan said.

Mr. Hun Sen had been too busy to meet her, but she was also not “on an equal footing” with the prime minister, he said.

“She doesn’t need to meet him,” Mr. Siphan said. “She’s not a politician. She does technical work.”

It was better that she sat down with ministers to work through the details of their portfolios together, he said, adding that her public criticisms were inappropriate.

“She has to realize that she’s a partner with Cambodia, so she doesn’t need to insult the government through reports,” Mr. Siphan said. “She’s just accusing. That’s not a partner. She should be cooperative more than accusing.”

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