Clock Ticking For UN’s Rights Office

With 10 days remaining until a government-imposed deadline for the U.N.’s human rights office to either sign a new agreement to operate in the country or close down, there is no sign that the two sides have come any closer to reaching a deal.

Both the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Foreign Affairs Ministry have said in recent days that they were continuing negotiations over a revised memorandum of understanding (MoU), but would give no specifics about how those talks were progressing.

“Negotiations on our [MoU] are continuing in a constructive manner,” Ravina Shamdasani, a spokeswoman for the OHCHR in Geneva, said in an email on Friday, adding that Christine Pickering, the spokeswoman for the office in Cambodia, would follow up on the matter.

Ms. Pickering said Wan-Hea Lee, the OHCHR’s country representative in Cambodia, had nothing to add regarding the negotiations.

Chum Sounry, spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Ministry, said on Monday that the ministry hoped to have a new agreement signed by the end of the year, but also declined to say whether either side had made any concessions during recent talks.

“The discussion is ongoing,” he said. “I hope the two parties can sign the agreement by the end of the year—that means sign the MoU by the end of the year.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Prak Sokhonn wrote to the U.N.’s high commissioner on human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, late last month informing him that if the local office refused to sign a new MoU on the government’s terms by December 30, it would be shut down.

“More than ever, [the OHCHR’s] representatives and spokesperson have been taking arrogant and disrespectful behaviors toward the sovereignty of Cambodia, which is unacceptable,” Mr. Sokhonn said in the letter.

If the U.N. does not sign a new MoU with additional language about not interfering in Cambodia’s internal affairs, he said, the government will have “no choice but to execute its sovereign rights on the future of the field presence of the OHCHR in Cambodia.”

Human rights organizations have said the government’s threat to close down the U.N.’s human rights office is just the latest move in its campaign to stifle criticism and smother dissent ahead of next year’s commune elections and 2018’s crucial national election.

Iniyan Ilango, U.N. advocacy manager for the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, said the diplomatic community, which has so far refrained from publicly expressing any concern over the situation, needed to defend the human rights office.

He noted that 39 countries came together during a September session of the U.N.’s Human Rights Council to express their concern over the deteriorating situation in Cambodia, which the government dismissed, saying it did not welcome foreign interference in its affairs.

“It is critical that these states closely monitor the current situation in the country and are able to diplomatically respond to any attempts to weaken OHCHR’s presence in the country,” Mr. Ilango said.

“The OHCHR has an important role to speak out on violations and this should not be muzzled,” he said.

“If the international community remains silent when OHCHR’s presence in Cambodia is weakened it will set a very negative precedent for the rest of the world,” he added.

While the previous MoU between the U.N. and Foreign Affairs Ministry expired about a year ago, the government’s ultimatum came only after Ms. Lee, the country representative, made comments critical of the government’s decision in October to exile opposition leader Sam Rainsy from the country.

Her comments calling on the government to explain or reverse its decision were initially published in The Cambodia Daily and picked up by various local news outlets. Ms. Lee said the reports failed to place her comments in the legal context in which they were intended.

“In responding to a question on whether Mr. Sam Rainsy’s entry ban was a violation of human rights, I explained that article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides for the right to liberty of movement,” she wrote in an email on November 29.

“My comments were reported without this explanation of the legal content of this right, thus appearing confrontational to the Government. I can see why some might have seen in them signs of ‘disrespect’ and ‘arrogance’, when none was intended,” Ms. Lee added.

“I firmly believe that a true friend and partner is s/he who is truthful about the challenges and lends a hand to overcome them. I would hope that the Government will see our work in this light.”

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