The U.N.’s human rights office has signed a new agreement to operate in Cambodia, less than two weeks before a government deadline that would have seen the office shut down if it did not renew its memorandum of understanding (MoU).
It was unclear exactly what concessions had been made during months of negotiations over the MoU, which expired more than a year ago, though new language was added referring to the U.N. Charter, a broad document outlining the rights and responsibilities of the U.N. and its member states.
The government had insisted on adding a reference to provisions specifically preventing the U.N. from interfering in its sovereign affairs, which was widely viewed as a move to stifle criticism from the rights office.
Instead, the whole charter is referenced in the new MoU, as the U.N. had proposed, with a clause giving particular attention to non-interference.
A statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Tuesday noted that cooperation between the government and Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is based on the U.N. Charter, citing a section that says: “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.”
The statement said the new MoU was signed on Monday and would allow the OHCHR to operate in the country for another two years.
The U.N. confirmed the signing, and posted an unsigned copy of the agreement online.
“We have come to a mutually acceptable agreement that takes into account the positions of both sides and preserves the integrity of the [MoU],” Liz Throssell, a spokeswoman for OHCHR in Geneva, said in an emailed statement.
Both the U.N. and the Foreign Affairs Ministry said they looked forward to working together to promote human rights in Cambodia, though observers have said that the prolonged process and threats to close the human rights office are a clear sign that the government is intent on doing just the opposite.
The ministry’s spokesman could not be reached on Tuesday, and the U.N. declined to respond to questions about how the two sides reached an agreement.
The MoU posted online says it is meant to “establish a framework of cooperation on the basis of the purposes and principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, in particular its Article 2 (7),” which refers to non-interference.
The charter also outlines the U.N.’s role in helping promote “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”
Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the government would struggle to use the charter’s non-interference provision to smother the OHCHR.
“I’m sure that there are those in the Cambodian government who see this sovereign affairs clause as leverage to pressure the OHCHR office, but they will have a hard time doing so judging by the strong and consistent international backing by diplomats and other UN agencies for the work that the OHCHR is doing in Cambodia,” he said in an email.
Mr. Robertson added that the OHCHR’s consistent drawing of the government’s ire was an indication that it was fulfilling its mandate of reporting on human rights abuses in Cambodia.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen and his government know that they are regularly violating human rights, but they don’t like being called on it,” he said.
“I’d argue that the government’s defensiveness shows that OHCHR is doing a very good, principled job in documenting and raising human rights problems with the government, and they should continue to stand up against unfair criticism by the government.”
Duch Piseth, advocacy director at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the government’s efforts to fend off criticism by claiming sovereignty were not new, and that the U.N.’s local rights office should be prepared to be shut down rather than shut up.
“From a human rights perspective, sovereignty and non-interference are not applicable because the international community has a responsibility to defend human rights around the world,” he said, adding that the coming years would be a test of the U.N.’s commitment to those values in Cambodia.
“The U.N. office will need to play hardball with the government, and not be afraid of being shut down, or else they will sacrifice their mandate of protecting and promoting the human rights of all individuals in Cambodia.”
The rising tension between the government and U.N. over the past two years has reflected a worsening human rights situation ahead of next year’s commune elections and 2018 national election, the first since the CNRP made massive gains on the CPP in 2013.
Since May last year, the number of political prisoners has gone up drastically, according to human rights group Licadho, which places the current number at 26. That group includes four human rights defenders, an election official and a number of opposition activists and officials.