Yash Ghai, UN special representative for human rights in Cambodia, on Tuesday said rights violations continue on a “systematic scale,” and that the ruling CPP has subverted democratic principles to retain its hold on power.
Addressing the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Ghai said the government has manipulated democratic processes, undermined legitimate political opposition, and used the state “for the accumulation of private wealth.”
He also blasted the government for limiting the speech of parliamentarians, jailing critics and granting immunity from justice to its supporters.
“One does not need expertise in human rights to recognize that many policies of the government have subverted the essential principles of democracy and due process and deprived people of their economic resources and means of livelihood, and denied them their dignity,” Ghai told the UN council.
“I have come to believe that these policies are integral to the political and economic systems through which the government rules,” he said, according to a copy of his speech.
“In short, I believe that the deliberate rejection of the concept of a state governed by rule of law has been central to the ruling party’s hold on power,” he added.
Om Yentieng, human rights adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, said Ghai’s comments were motivated by anger and loathing.
“He has no courage, he made the statement based on his anger,” Om Yentieng said by telephone.
Om Yentieng said Ghai’s hatred of the government has blinded him from the true state of human rights in Cambodia.
“He hates the government,” Om Yentieng said.
He added that Ghai was unappreciative of the government’s participation in the two-day human rights conference that ended Wednesday in Siem Reap town.
“Yash Ghai looks down on the people who joined the conference as well as himself,” he added.
Hours before Ghai spoke on Tuesday, Hun Sen suggested that the UN office for human rights should relocate to Baghdad as it is no longer needed in Phnom Penh. But he added that the office can stay here if it wants as the government was at least still able to collect rental fees from the UN.
Ghai said in Geneva that the CPP has dominated the state by controlling the National Election Committee and intimidating its critics and opponents.
He also took issue with the government for its handling of peaceful public protests.
“Peaceful meetings and assemblies have been broken up by state authorities, using arms and other forms of violence,” Ghai said.
He accused the government of undermining the independence of the courts and failing to enact laws crucial to developing the legal system.
“Supporters of the government are almost never prosecuted,” he said. “At the same time spurious charges are brought against opponents of the government or those who struggle for democracy and rights.”
He added that in politically driven cases, “judges convict on the most flimsy evidence or incorrect interpretations of the law.”
Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana said that he was too busy to speak to a reporter.
Ghai also weighed in on corruption in Cambodia, which he described as “endemic.”
He questioned why the government has not yet enacted legislation, which he said was under discussion since 1995, to combat it. The long-awaited anti-corruption law has been meandering through government corridors for more than a decade.
He also talked of the hopelessness of land-grabbing victims and described what he said were illegal evictions.
“I remember well talking to people who had been dispossessed of their land, who were desperate when they heard that their case had been taken to court by those who had seized the land, for it was easy to predict the verdict,” Ghai said. “The sense of their own powerlessness deepens and becomes even more debilitating.”
Ghai ended with a call to donors and the international community to apply pressure on Cambodia to give higher priority to rights. It is not enough for donors to simply offer technical assistance and capacity building or even to push for human rights treaties and protocols, he said.
“They must energetically support poor and powerless communities and Cambodian non-governmental organizations defending and working for human rights,” he said.
Kek Galabru, president of local rights group Licadho, said she agreed with Ghai’s assessment and that the government could benefit from it if it was willing to listen.
“I hope our government will take the report and discuss [it] among the members of different institutions and find a way to make reforms,” she said.
“Special representatives have no interest in inventing the story about Cambodia,” she added. “Yash Ghai doesn’t come to Cambodia because he needs the job.”
SRP lawmaker Son Chhay said he agreed with Ghai’s evaluation of Cambodia’s political situation.
“[The CPP] has nearly full control over all the national institutions. It looks like the prime minister is running the country alone,” Son Chhay said. “It now becomes clear that the CPP controls everything.”
Ghai said he was aware of the Siem Reap rights conference, which was opened by Hun Sen, and said he hoped it would lead to “genuine dialogue” about human rights.
He acknowledged that the government might be displeased with his statement and might consider it unfair.
But he invited the government to inform the UN Human Rights Council of improvements it has made.
He also acknowledged progress made in Cambodia since he first visited in 1992.
“However, 15 years after the adoption of the Paris Peace Accords, the provisions relating to human rights have yet to be fulfilled,” he said.
The government has traditionally enjoyed a rocky relationship with UN rights envoys assigned to Cambodia.
In April 2005, Om Yentieng took issue with former UN rights envoy to Cambodia Peter Leuprecht, who had said the government was becoming increasingly autocratic, with a growing concentration of power in the hands of Hun Sen.
Om Yentieng accused Leuprecht at the time of being too “personal and arbitrary,” saying his evaluation did not reflect reality.
Speaking in Phnom Penh in March, Ghai also said too much power was concentrated in the hands of one individual for human rights to flourish.
His remarks enraged Hun Sen, who unleashed several verbal attacks on Ghai over the following days, calling him “rude,” a “long-term tourist” and demanding that the UN fire him.