A European Parliament delegation on Monday questioned the recent assessment of Cambodia’s rights record by UN envoy Yash Ghai, stating that its own positive evaluation of the country as a stable, functioning democracy was more impartial.
Marc Tarabella, first vice-chairman of the European Parliament committee for Asean relations and leader of the six-member delegation, made the comments at a news conference on the group’s final day in Cambodia.
“I believe the UN representative did not assess the situation here as objectively as we did. And what he said shocked [Prime Minister] Hun Sen,” said Tarabella, who met with the prime minister, as well as representatives of trade unions, NGOs, UN agencies and political parties.
“Stability is needed and stability has been achieved,” he said. “For example, the election in 2003 was judged by all as held in excellent conditions.”
“Elections, they don’t happen in every country in the world. Here, the opposition can criticize,” he added.
Commenting shortly after the 2003 election, EU Election Observer Mission spokesman Antonio de Menezes said the vote was an improvement on previous elections, but he would not say whether it was free and fair.
Asked whether Hun Sen held too much political power, a claim made by Ghai at a press conference in March, Tarabella said: “Yes, there is a degree of concentration of power. But on the other hand, there is a good sign of decentralization…. So I would say it is a functioning democracy.”
In March, Ghai said there had been slim improvement in human rights, due to “enormous centralization of power, not only in the government but in one individual.”
Hun Sen subsequently blasted Ghai, calling for UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to fire him, and stating that the local UN center for human rights office was staffed by “tourists.”
Tarabella said much has improved in the country, listing voting rights and improved circumstances for women. Among his criticisms was a lack of reform in the judicial system, which he called the country’s “weak point,” adding that it is undermining the rest of the country’s progress.
He added, however, that a questionable judiciary would not harm the Khmer Rouge trial because of international involvement.
Tarabella also acknowledged the country’s ongoing problem with human trafficking, but said that officials were not to blame for the situation. “It is not the fault of the government, it is the fault of the Mafia,” he said.
The US State Department’s anti-human trafficking office disclosed in February that National Police Commissioner Hok Lundy was denied a visa to visit the US last year due to allegations linking him to human trafficking. Cambodian officials have firmly denied the allegations.
Tarabella said the delegation’s final report would be reviewed by the European Parliament, and would be considered when members next discuss sending aid to Cambodia.
Human rights workers voiced skepticism about the European delegation’s findings.
Thun Saray, president of local rights group Adhoc, said the assessment seemed naive, especially regarding decentralization.
“Sometimes Hun Sen gives up his power, but he gets it back later on,” Thun Saray said. “If the delegates come back after the 2008 elections, perhaps they will have another impression of the situation,” he said.
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay called the delegation’s analysis of human trafficking “laughable.”
“I think Yash Ghai’s report is more accurate. He has an office here, he has been working on a permanent basis here. He has contacts here,” Lao Mong Hay said.
He also accused the delegates of providing a positive report to justify European aid to Cambodia.
“It justifies the European Union. It implies that aid to Cambodia has been fruitful,” he said. “Scratch beneath the surface, and you find what Yash Ghai found.”
Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said he was pleased by delegation’s findings.
“They came for a week, they understand the situation better than the UN Human Rights office,” he said. “That office should have been closed years ago, but Hun Sen lets it continue because it brings money and jobs in to the country and sometimes spurs a few government officials to be good,” he added.