Despite countless meetings with officials and a continuing stream of recommendations to improve human rights in Cambodia, U.N. envoy Rhona Smith has seen the situation deteriorate every time she visits.
In an interview in Phnom Penh on Wednesday, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia said she still hopes to spark gradual improvements.
“The intention is that you will raise awareness of particular issues and areas of concerns, and that by working with the government and other stakeholders you contribute to the human rights situation on the ground in Cambodia,” she said.
Ms. Smith, who was appointed last year, has faced backlash over her sharp rebukes of human rights violations in Cambodia, particularly of perceived attacks to the political opposition through the courts. Both the president and vice president of the CNRP currently face criminal convictions for cases widely considered to be politically motivated, and about 30 opposition figures and critics have been deemed political prisoners by rights group Licadho.
Last month, in response to her report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Cambodia’s representative said Ms. Smith’s conclusions did not reflect the actual situation in Cambodia and failed to take into account the country’s specific human rights context.
“But that’s what I really do,” Ms. Smith responded on Wednesday. “The Cambodian national context for human rights has a very strong statement of human rights in the Constitution.”
“And that’s substantiated by the Cambodian government voluntarily consenting to ratify a significant number of international human rights treaties,” she added.
Her current 10-day visit has been marked mostly by few words from Ms. Smith and many from her interlocutors about what she supposedly said, thought and was told.
On Wednesday, Ms. Smith met with Social Affairs Minister Vong Sauth and discussed the notorious Prey Speu social affairs center in Phnom Penh, which has long been criticized for being an inhumane holding center for the homeless.
She relayed concerns about the center, but, according to ministry spokesman Em Chan Makara, in the end she “admired and congratulated” the improvements that had been made.
“In general, Ms. Rhona Smith was surprised after she met with His Excellency the minister,” Mr. Chan Makara said. “We saw that the information she had received was negative, but she received the real information from His Excellency the minister.”
Later, she met deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha at CNRP headquarters, where he has been living since May to avoid arrest.
“We requested she help improve the situation to prevent all violations of human and political rights, in order to make the political atmosphere return to normal and guarantee free and transparent elections,” said CNRP lawmaker Eng Chhay Eng.
Asked about this request, Ms. Smith said she had not received a specific request to make elections free, but added, “I think it’s part of my role.”