UN human rights envoy Yash Ghai launched a stinging attack on Cambodia’s donor community Monday for their failure to bring the government to task over what he described as a deteriorating situation in human rights—particularly in terms of land-related issues.
Speaking on International Human Rights Day, the final day of his latest visit to Cambodia, Ghai also expressed regret that no member of the government would meet with him.
Ghai told a news conference that on this latest mission to Cambodia he had focused on the rule of law and access to justice, particularly in terms of land grabbing and forced evictions.
Describing the situation with land issues in Cambodia as “dismal,” Ghai said it was the responsibility of the international donor community, who were “deeply implicated” in how Cambodia is being run, to protect human rights and democratic practices.
Ghai said that many donor representatives he had spoken to in Phnom Penh had stressed a policy of not interfering with domestic matters in Cambodia.
“Human rights is not a national, domestic law,” Ghai said.
“[The donors] are giving very large grants to the government here…. [Donors] could tell [the government] that what is going on here is completely unacceptable but they are not doing that,” he said.
Ghai said that he had requested meetings with Prime Minister Hun Sen, several different ministers, the co-chairs of the Council for Legal and Judicial Reform, as well as the chairman of the government’s Human Rights Committee, but none had materialized.
“Hun Sen has rejected my request of meeting with him, so I regret that I must communicate with him through the media,” Ghai added.
In June of this year, Hun Sen addressed his refusal to meet Ghai during a previous visit, saying: “If you [Ghai] continue to stay [in Cambodia] for another 1,000 years and if I survive another 1,000 years, I still will not meet you.”
Ghai told the news conference that rights groups in Ratanakkiri province had reported that the situation with regard to land issues in particular had deteriorated.
“Cambodia is not a rule of law state,” Ghai said, adding that a lack of respect for law and its institutions had facilitated land grabbing.
“The institutions charged with implementing the rule of law are very weak and subordinated to the government,” he said, adding that people are afraid of courts as “sites of injustice.”
Ghai said that from what he had seen, ordinary people are finding it increasingly difficult to withstand the pressures of big companies and politicians who want to take their land.
He also said that he had been “deeply distressed” at the conditions in Phnom Penh’s Dey Krahorm and Group 78 communities, which he visited twice during his stay.
Even though the two communities “are only a few meters from the Parliament building,” it has not given them any protection from rapacious private developers, Ghai said.
“The development lauded here is a type of development that impoverishes and increases the deprivations of people while enriching private interests,” Ghai said.
Though Cambodia may be developing rapidly at the moment, the practice of land grabbing could spell future trouble for the country, he said.
“There is a limit to how far coercion can be used as a mechanism for development,” he added.
Ghai will be presenting his report from this visit to Cambodia to the UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva in March 2008.
CPP officials said Monday that there had been no intentional snubbing of the UN envoy.
National Assembly First Vice President Nguon Nhel said he did not know when Ghai had requested his meetings but whether officials could fulfill such a request depended on the time they have to spare.
“[Ghai’s] presence was at a time when most of the senior officials were overseas,” Nguon Nhel added.
Hun Sen and a large government delegation returned Sunday after a four-day visit to India.
Minister for Agriculture Chan Sarun said Monday that he had not seen any meeting request from Ghai.
Nguon Nhel also said the government is working towards establishing the rule of law. Cambodia was not the only country with such problems, he added, offering as an example the recent rioting and government crackdown in France.
Ghai’s press conference was one of several events in Phnom Penh marking the 59th UN International Human Rights Day.
Earlier Monday morning, Ghai had joined over 1,000 people, including representatives from 16 other communities facing eviction, who linked arms and formed a human chain around Dey Krahorm and Group 78 to show their support for the embattled communities.
David Pred, country director of the housing rights NGO Bridges Across Borders, described the human chain as a community led event and “a turning point for urban poor communities in Phnom Penh.”
“It is the first time we have seen communities in Phnom Penh uniting in this way to assert their rights and ask the government to stop forced evictions,” said Phann Sithan, coordinator of the Housing Rights Task Force.
Chamkar Mon Deputy District Governor Mea Sopheap said that he had not been notified of the event and that the gathering at the communities on Monday morning was illegal.
“Those people were anarchic to do this,” Mea Sopheap said. “Whatever they do, they never ask permission from the authorities,” he added.
Also on Monday morning, 500 people, including Ghai, marched from Phsar Chas to Wat Phnom to mark the day.