As they laid down their arms 16 years ago, warring factions in Cambodia agreed that the UN should scrutinize the country’s respect for human rights.
And today, as in previous years, allegations of torture and extrajudicial killings, of a politicized judiciary and the curtailing of essential freedoms will again be brought to the world’s attention by the UN’s current rights envoy to Cambodia, Yash Ghai.
Whether the world needs to go on hearing such reports will also be decided this year by the newly created UN Human Rights Council, where a movement among some member states appears willing to end the practice of country mandates, which authorize the presence of country-specific UN human rights investigators.
Central to the UN reform process, the 47-member Council replaced the much-criticized Human Rights Commission, which was abolished in 2006 as an outmoded forum often manipulated by gross human rights violators.
The case of Cambodia is one test of many the Council must pass in order to demonstrate that, unlike the Commission, it is able to put human rights before political horse trading among member states.
“The Council is a political body. It is not a court of justice,” said Julie de Rivero, Geneva advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. “There is a general trend against country mandates by several states that think it isn’t a constructive way to approach human rights.”
Held over from the Commission’s final session, the Cambodia country mandate was approved “by consensus,” or without opposition, at the Council in 2007.
However, it is up for renewal in September. If a single Council member opposes that renewal, it will be put to a vote, giving a majority of Council members the chance to kill it.
Critics of the Council say many member states oppose country mandates, as they dislike seeing individual countries singled out for criticism that may later be directed at themselves.
“European diplomats openly predict that within a year all UN special investigators dedicated to uncovering and reporting on human rights violations in specific states will be abolished by the Council,” law professor Anne Bayefsky, a staunch UN critic, wrote in the conservative US magazine the National Review in September.
In reviewing the country mandate for North Korea at the Council on Friday, six of 12 countries making comments opposed renewal of the mandate, which Zimbabwe called “obsolete.”
Along with Zimbabwe, Cuba, Algeria and China said they instead preferred the Council’s Universal Periodic Review mechanism, which calls for states to be scrutinized by the Council as rarely as once every four years. Cambodia is scheduled for such a review next year.
However, de Rivero said that while the Council recently ended country mandates for Cuba and Belarus, it had renewed them for Haiti, the Sudan and Liberia.
It was too early to judge which way the Council was leaning in the case of Cambodia, she added.
“It’s a fragile negotiating process to get [the mandates] renewed,” she said.
In June, former Cambodian ambassador to Switzerland Chheang Vun told the Council that Cambodia no longer accepted the mandate of Yash Ghai, whose reports have drawn angry rebuttals from virtually every senior government official.
However, both government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith and former UN ambassador and Foreign Affairs Ministry Secretary of State Ouch Borith declined requests for comment on Cambodia’s position vis-a-vis the country mandate, which is distinct from its position concerning Yash Ghai.
Egypt was elected to the Council in May over the protests of human rights groups. Official news agency Agence Kampuchea-Presse reported earlier this month that an Egyptian diplomat had thanked Cambodia for its support of Egypt’s candidacy for Council membership.
Egypt also expressed dislike for country mandates at a Council meeting in September.
The drafting of resolutions proposing the renewal of Cambodia’s country mandate has in previous years been coordinated by Japan, long Cambodia’s largest bilateral aid donor.
However, Japanese Ambas-sador Katsuhiro Shinohara said in an e-mail Friday that Japan had not yet decided whether to support renewal in September.
“Since the mandate review of the [special representative of the UN secretary-general] for human rights in Cambodia at the Human Rights Council is not yet due, Japan has not decided any position on this matter,” he wrote. “Nevertheless, Japan recognizes the importance of engagement of UN in Cambodia for improving its human rights situation.”
US Embassy spokesman Jeff Daigle said the US, which is not currently a Council member, would determine whether to express support for renewing the mandate during the September review.
But the US generally supports the appointment of rights envoys by the Council, which he said was among its “most potent tools.”
“The United States has repeatedly called on other countries to allow Special Rapporteurs to visit and meet with government officials,” he wrote in an e-mail.
“From our point of view, we still have hope that state members will continue to support country representatives,” said Naly Pilorge, director of the local rights group Licadho.
Both Licadho President Kek Galabru and Thun Saray, president of the rights group Adhoc, are in Geneva this week to lobby Council members to continue the mandate.