Gov’t Blasted for Failure to Send Experts to UN Conference on Indigenous People

Representatives of Cambodia’s indigenous minorities slammed the government yesterday for failing to send high-ranking officials to last week’s UN panel on discrimination in Geneva, saying it demonstrated a lack of concern for the dire situation faced by ethnic minorities here.

Khan Channy, an ethnic Banong from Mondolkiri province’s Pech Chreada district and one of three indigenous minority representatives to attend the UN panel on Cambodia’s adherence to an international treaty on racial discrimination, said that the government’s representatives who attended the UN panel were Cambodian diplomats based in Switzerland who did not fully understand the problems faced by ethnic minorities in Cambodia.

“The people who responded [to the UN], they live out there [in Switzerland], not here–they don’t know what is happening here,” Ms Channy said.

During last week’s session in Geneva, Cambodia was represented solely by its Switzerland-based diplomats.

Questioning by the UN panel often takes a technical bent, and most countries opt to send high-ranking officials well-versed in the intricacies of laws on racial discrimination and their application.

Of the nine countries with public delegate lists whose state reports are being discussed during the current session in Geneva, Cambodia was the only one that did not dispatch a delegation. Seven of the countries sent directors of government bodies set up specifically to address the rights of minorities–such as Argentina’s National Institute of Indigenous Affairs or Japan’s Comprehensive Ainu Policy Department.

The Cambodian representatives, including Cambodian Ambassador to Switzerland Sun Suon, “said indigenous people had everything and didn’t lack anything. They always ducked the questions,” Ms Channy noted at yesterday’s news conference at the offices of NGO Forum in Phnom Penh.

Speaking from Geneva yesterday, former US war crimes ambassador Pierre-Richard Prosper, who served as the UN committee expert and rapporteur for Cambodia said, “while the committee was pleased that Cambodia has re-engaged in the dialogue, there was a general disappointment that no one from capital attended. The Permanent Representative did a good job under the circumstances, for which we were grateful.”

In the UN panel’s recommendations, which will be released mid-March, this issue likely will be raised, added Mr Prosper.

“We stressed to them the need to bring experts in the future,” he said.

Mak Sambath, deputy chairman of the government’s Human Rights Committee, defended the government’s decision, saying that the ambassador who attended the meeting was well versed in the issues at hand. He added that financial difficulties made it impossible to send anyone from the government.

“First, the ambassador has enough ability to answer all the questions because he has had contact with our institution…. Second, we want to save some money. As you know since the global economy has declined, we’ve also been affected.”

Mr Sambath also rebuffed reports that the government delegation was not up to the task of defending Cambodia’s record on indigenous people’s rights–a claim made by attendees as well as the UN panel.

“Even though he is there and the experts here, they know and understand the same,” said Mr Sambath, explaining that the government kept Ambassador Suon abreast of rights issues.

“[When] our ambassador answers, it is the same as us answering. The government of Cambodia and the Human Rights Committee gives him the right to answer.”

But many disputed Mr Sambath’s insistence that the lack of a high level delegation is not a reflection of the government’s commitment to the rights of ethnic minorities.

“It shows the world we are not committed to human rights,” said Suon Sareth, executive secretary of the Cambodia Human Rights Action Committee, which collaborated on a “shadow” report sent to the UN panel concerning the rights of indigenous minorities here.

“I think they do not care too much about this,” he added.



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