After the Foreign Affairs Ministry said the U.N. human rights office had “crossed a red line” with its criticism of the decision to exile opposition leader Sam Rainsy from the country, a government spokesman on Sunday called the body “illegal.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the local office of the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), would be operating illegally until it renewed its memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Foreign Affairs Ministry.
Mr. Siphan said the punishment would be that the government would not pay any attention to the office or its activities.
“We will ignore them. We don’t consider as official any report or implementation between the government and that international organization. No weight at all because the protocol is not signed,” he said, referring to the MoU.
“It has no signature from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” Mr. Siphan said. “It means it is illegal.”
It has been almost a year since the OHCHR’s agreement to cooperate with the Foreign Affairs Ministry expired, though the office has continued to meet with government officials, hosted the U.N.’s human rights envoy to Cambodia and weighed in on what has widely been described as a deteriorating rights situation as commune and national elections approach.
The government is refusing to renew the MoU unless new language is added about the U.N. respecting Cambodia’s sovereignty and staying out of its internal affairs.
In a letter sent on Friday to U.N. resident country coordinator Claire Van der Vaeren, Foreign Affairs Minister Prak Sokhonn rebuked the U.N.’s human rights office for demanding an explanation of last month’s decision to ban Mr. Rainsy from returning to Cambodia.
Mr. Sokhonn said the remarks from OHCHR country representative Wan-Hea Lee “crossed the red line of the U.N. Charter,” adding that Ms. Lee “has continued interfering into the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Cambodia.”
The letter added that, given the circumstances and the expired MoU, “the current operation and activities of the OHCHR in Cambodia, including those of its Country Representative, are not legitimate.”
Ms. Lee has not responded to numerous requests for comment since Friday.
Chum Sounry, spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Ministry, declined to comment on the minister’s letter.
In the remarks that drew the latest rebuke, Ms. Lee said that the government’s decision to ban Mr. Rainsy, a dual French-Cambodian citizen, required an immediate explanation or reversal as it appeared to violate various international laws protecting the rights of citizens.
“No elements of the decision to block the entry of Mr. Sam Rainsy into Cambodia have been brought to light that would allow anyone to assess its reasonableness, which renders the decision unjustified and arbitrary,” Ms. Lee said in an email to The Cambodia Daily.
The exiling of Mr. Rainsy, who was already living abroad to avoid a two-year prison sentence over a defamation case, was made through a directive issued on October 18 by Sok Phal, a police general and head of the Interior Ministry’s immigration department.
The directive told officials at airports and international border checkpoints to remain vigilant and “take legal action to stop this individual from coming into Cambodia, taking other action if necessary for serious and highly effective implementation.”
Apart from violating international conventions signed by Cambodia, the directive also contravenes the Constitution, which guarantees the rights of citizens to return home.
“Khmer citizens shall have the right to travel and settle abroad and return to the country,” the Constitution states.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said on Sunday that Mr. Rainsy was simply too much of a security risk to allow inside the country, despite his constitutional right to return.
“Sam Rainsy does not want peace, he only wants Cambodia to fly into war, to fly into chaos,” he said, citing mass anti-government demonstrations led by Mr. Rainsy following the disputed 2013 national election.
“We always protect our Constitution, but we can’t welcome anybody who wants Cambodia to go back to the civil war.”
General Sopheak said the government did not have any obligation to explain its decision to the U.N. or foreign governments.
“We are not the colonialist state that is under the control of the U.N.,” he said. “We cooperate with the U.N., it’s different.”