As UN Envoy Arrives, Rights Defenders Question Sway

As Rhona Smith, the U.N.’s new special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, began her first official visit to the country Wednesday, leading human rights activists were at odds over how much her position could influence the situation on the ground.

Ms. Smith, a professor of international human rights law at Northumbria University in the U.K., was approved as the latest U.N. human rights envoy to the country in March, succeeding Surya Subedi, whose six-year mandate ended earlier this year.

A trip by Ms. Smith originally planned for May was canceled for “logistical reasons” and rescheduled for this month.

Her visit, which will end next Thursday, is set to include meetings with Prime Minister Hun Sen, Interior Minister Sar Kheng, civil society leaders and local communities, according to a statement from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Local rights activists said Wednesday that they planned to brief Ms. Smith on a litany of problems facing the country, but offered mixed opinions on how much of an impact, if any, she could have on the government’s actions.

Suon Bunsak, executive secretary of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, said he planned to address three separate topics—land issues, the judiciary and electoral reform—in a meeting with Ms. Smith today.

Mr. Bunsak said he believed the special rapporteur had a significant role to play in reminding the government of its international commitments to protect human rights.

“We need such high-ranking expertise—U.N. officials to keep watching the situation of human rights in the country,” Mr. Bunsak said.

The special rapporteur, he said, was necessary “to advise the government [and] to hold them accountable for actions, for resolutions, for improvement.”

Ny Chakrya, head of monitoring for rights group Adhoc, who has himself faced legal threats for his advocacy work in recent months, said that his organization would report to Ms. Smith on “security for human rights defenders…freedom of expression and space for political activities.”

“I think the situation is worse than before if you compare with the space for expression in the past,” Mr. Chakrya said, citing the recent arrests of two young men—Kong Raya and Phong Seiha—for posts on social media.

Mr. Raya called for a “color revolution” on his personal Facebook page while Mr. Seiha took to the website to threaten the life of Sok Touch, a prominent academic who has been tasked by the government with studying the demarcation of the border with Vietnam.

Mr. Chakrya added that the failure on the part of authorities to investigate the fatal police shootings of five protesters in January last year and the recent conviction of 11 opposition activists on what are widely believed to be spurious insurrection charges was evidence that the human rights situation in the country was on the decline.

“This is clear evidence that the situation for political activists in the country is very dangerous,” he said.

Still, he said he doubted Ms. Smith’s ability to hold the government to account.

“Based on my experience, the government doesn’t accept the special rapporteur as an adviser,” he said. “They see the special rapporteur as the opposition. That is the problem.”

Ou Virak, a political analyst and founder of the Future Forum think tank, agreed that the special rapporteur held little clout in the country.

“The significance of that role is actually on the decline every single year,” Mr. Virak said, noting that increasing support from China was steadily diminishing the U.N.’s leverage in Cambodia.

“That’s unfortunately how the world works and there’s very little the U.N. can do about or is willing to do about it,” he said.

“I think she’s going to have an uphill battle,” he said of Ms. Smith. “Her mandate is still there, although I think the commitment no longer is.”

(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)

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