Cambodia defended its rights record this week against sharp criticism of its courts, among other items, from Israel during a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, blaming the Middle Eastern state for shortcomings of its own.
A government official yesterday pointed to this year’s passage of the anti-corruption law and improved methods of training court officials as proof that the judiciary was improving.
Israel’s critique came Friday during a general debate portion of the Council’s latest two-week session, according to video of the meeting posted on the UN’s website. Long Sokhan, second secretary at the Cambodian Embassy in Geneva, delivered the government’s reply on Monday.
Mr Sokhan’s reply followed brief but broad-ranging remarks from Walid Abu-Haya, first secretary at the Israeli Embassy in Geneva. Between criticism of Iran and North Korea, he also cited Cambodia’s courts and police.
“The freedom of peaceful assembly and association in Cambodia remains heavily curtailed. Politicians and journalists that voice dissent are subject to harassment and violence. Perpetrators engaged in the trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and children act with impunity with the support of police and government officials,” he said. “The independence and impartiality of the judiciary is also called into question.”
In another video from the meeting, Mr Sokhan on Monday said he was surprised by Mr Abu-Haya’s criticism.
“It was surprising to my delegation that the delegation of Israel [made] such an unconstructive statement…that undermines the good spirit and the effort made in Cambodia on the area of promotion and protection of human rights,” he said. “We are disappointed and regret that delegate of Israel ignores the long-standing record of Cambodia achievement and commitment to human rights.”
Calling Israel a “country of great concern” for its own human rights record, Mr Sokhan went on to label Israel’s comments as hypocritical.
“We humbly invite the delegation of Israel to look at their own country situation first with regard to human rights before addressing the issue of Cambodia. This would improve the modesty,” he said.
Mr Sokhan said Cambodia was committed to improving its human right record, and finally called on all “friendly countries” for their “constructive criticism.”
The allegations of Israel’s representative echo charges long voiced by the country’s opposition and local nongovernment groups. In a report released last week, the UN’s human rights envoy to Cambodia told the Human Rights Council that corruption appeared “widespread at all levels of the judiciary.”
Mr Abu-Haya ended his comments on Cambodia by calling for the release of Leang Sokchouen, an employee of local rights group Licadho. Takeo Provincial Court convicted Mr Sokchouen to two years in jail last month for disseminating false information critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his CPP government. Licadho denounced what they called a deeply flawed investigation and trial.
The group welcomed Israel’s comments.
Israel’s “statement about our staff is a clear support of our action, and the signal that our statements have reached out to the international community,” Licadho President Chhiv Kek Pung said yesterday. “We will continue to ask for the immediate release of Leang Sokchouen since he has been sentenced to two years in prison without any evidence of distributing anti-government leaflets.”
Of Cambodia’s overall human rights record, she said, “if not worsening, the situation is not improving. Justice is not independent. Freedom of assembly is shrinking and the pending NGO law, which we suspect to be aimed at controlling instead of protecting and organizing the NGOs, represents a clear danger for the work of human rights defenders.”
Government officials in Cambodia, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, declined to comment yesterday because they knew neither of Mr Sokhan’s remarks nor of the meeting itself.
Phay Siphan, the Council of Ministers spokesman, said he had not heard of Israel’s remarks either but dismissed the criticism.
“Such commentary is just talk mentioning the same thing again and again but not looking at the upgrading of the judicial system in Cambodia, which we have reformed,” he said.
Mr Siphan dismissed Israel’s comments as the product of “wrong information” and insisted that the brief exchange would not hurt bilateral relations.
“It doesn’t harm relations between the countries. We will continue to strengthen and improve the ties,” he said.
Surya Subedi, the UN human rights envoy to Cambodia, is due to address the Human Rights Council next week.