Clinton Backs UN Rights Office After Talk of Closure

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday expressed support for the continued presence of the UN human rights office in Cam­bodia as the government downplayed last week’s threats to close the office.

Ms Clinton also welcomed close Cambodian ties with China but ap­peared to caution against over-re­liance on the northern neighbor, saying there were “im­portant issues that Cambodia must raise with China” and citing Chinese dams on the upper Me­kong river.

Ms Clinton’s comments in Phnom Penh came during a two-day visit to Cambodia, part of a tour of the region. Government officials last week threatened to close the local office of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and accused its director of being an opposition mouthpiece.

With conflicting statements made during a visit last week by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon by Foreign Minister Hor Namhong and government spokes­man Khieu Kanharith, it was unclear if the government planned to close the office outright or to do so only if Country Rep­resentative Christophe Pesch­oux were not removed.

But at a joint news conference yesterday with Ms Clinton, Mr Namhong said no decision had been made to close the office, the mandate of which expires in Jan­uary 2012.

“I would like to note that there is no decision to close this office yet,” Mr Namhong said, adding that 2012 was far in the future. “During UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s visit, we raised that issue, but no decision has been made yet.”

Ms Clinton called the rights office a “valuable resource” that provided technical assistance to the government.

“The high commissioner’s of­fice is active in ways that we think are very complementary of what the Cambodian government is committed to doing, and we think the work is important and we’d like to see it continue,” Ms Clinton said.

Amnesty International and Hu­man Rights Watch on Friday called on Ms Clinton to show her support for the rights office on her trip.

“This attack by the government on the OHCHR Cambodia office should be seen as a direct assault on the UN’s human rights mandate,” the groups said in a statement.

Ms Clinton elaborated yesterday on what she described as the US com­mitment to human rights while speaking to an audience of roughly 600 students.

“We hope that democratic institutions become stronger in Cam­bodia and the space for political expression is big,” said Ms Clin­ton, adding that human rights concerns were not a cause for disengagement.

“Even where we disagree with the actions of a country or of a government, we don’t stop talking and we don’t stop working and we don’t stop looking for areas of agreement,” she said.

During yesterday’s question-and-answer session, Ms Clinton fielded a question on the rising influence of Chi­na on Cambodia.

“It is not for the United States to tell Cambodia how to manage Cambodia’s relationships,” she said.

“You don’t want to get too de­pendent on any one country,” she added.

Ms Clinton said there were “many reasons” for Cambodia to have a good relationship with China but said such a relationship entailed open dialogue.

“I think that there are also important issues that Cambodia must raise with China,” Ms Clin­ton said, mentioning the dams on the upper, Chinese section of the Mekong river. Environmentalists have said dams on the river threaten fisheries and have also specifically criticized China for not releasing information on its hydropower projects.

Chinese Embassy spokesman Qian Hai said yesterday that China welcomed Cambodia’s broadening relations with other countries.

“We want all the countries to be friends,” he said.

Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said that the Me­kong River Commission, of which China is not a member, already ensured cooperation on the river.

“We have the Mekong River Commission to solve the issue with China,” he said.

Ms Clinton’s visit to the Asia-Pacific region was part of a stated effort to boost US engagement in the region.

Although US is a major donor to Cambodia and gave more than $70 million in aid in 2010, according to the US State Department, China pledged $1.2 billion in interest-free loans in December alone last year.

China’s largesse has not been dependent on a good human rights record. The $1.2 billion in loans came after Cambodia drew international condemnation for deporting 20 Uighur asylum seekers. In May, China pledged to send 250 military vehicles here, one month after the US suspended a similar shipment over the Uighur deportation, which has also spurred draft legislation in Washington to withhold funding for some forms of military aid.

The government announced Sunday that China would donate $600 million to help build a railroad between Phnom Penh and Vietnam. The announcement was made soon after criticism over the threatened closure of the UN human rights office.

Top Chinese legislator Wu Bangguo was scheduled to visit Cambodia for three days beginning tomorrow, according to state news agency Xinhua.

At yesterday’s conference, Ms Clinton said the US and Cambodia would resume talks over Cambodia’s Lon Nol-era debt, long a thorn in the side of US-Cambodia relations.

“We have agreed that the United States will send a team of experts as soon as possible to resume discussion over ways to settle the debt,” she said, adding that talks were last held in 2006. The debt stood at about $445 million at the end of last year.

Ms Clinton declined to elaborate on what a debt settlement might look like, saying experts would “explore a broad range of potential areas.”

However, in yesterday’s question-and-answer session, Ms Clinton said, “You could have some repayment, you could have debt for nature, you could have debt for education. There are things that the government of Cambodia could do that would satisfy the need to demonstrate some level of accountability.”

 

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