The government yesterday dismissed NGO claims that it remained incapable of effectively preventing torture and punishing abusers, two days before Cambodia faces the UN Committee Against Torture in Geneva.
Tomorrow’s hearing is only the second for Cambodia since it acceded 18 years ago to the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture, and it will be a chance for the committee to assess the country’s progress toward meeting its obligations.
Local NGOs believe that it has far to go.
“In Cambodia today, there are still no measures available to effectively prevent acts of torture,” a group of local human rights NGOs including Adhoc and Licadho said in a report submitted to the committee last month. “The evidence […] indicates that the majority of cases of torture occur in police custody, often in the form of extracting confessions.”
The convention defines torture as the infliction of suffering by government officials for the purpose of obtaining information, of punishment or of intimidation. The treaty requires parties to punish torturers and prevent courts from using information extracted under torture.
The committee in 2003 called on Cambodia to do more to prevent the use of evidence obtained under torture from being used in court.
The meeting in Geneva also comes less than two weeks after Prime Minister Hun Sen threatened to shut down the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia, one of the key investigators of torture claims in the country.
The office’s deputy country representative, James Heenan, yesterday welcomed news that the government would be sending officials from Phnom Penh to face a UN panel abroad.
At previous appearances before UN treaty bodies, expert panels monitoring state parties’ compliance with human rights treaties, Cambodia has been represented only by diplomats posted to Switzerland who have struggled to answer detailed and technical questions about government policy.
NGOs have labeled Cambodia’s habit of delegating such meetings to its foreign missions a sign of the government’s indifference toward its international obligations.
According to a government document posted on the website of the Committee Against Torture, Cambodia will be sending a delegate from the Social Affairs Ministry’s general department of technical affairs and another from the government’s National Prevention Mechanism Against Torture.
“It needs these specialists there to have a fruitful dialogue,” Mr Heenan said.
Despite reports from both the UN and local NGOs, the deputy president of the government’s human rights committee, Mak Sambath, denied their claims of torture in Cambodia’s prisons and detention centers.
“Only saying it does not make it true,” he said yesterday. “It needs evidence.”
Much of tomorrow’s discussion in Geneva will likely focus on whether the government plans to add a definition of torture to its laws. In reply to a list of questions from the committee early this year, the government said a clause in the constitution obliging Cambodia to stick to its international treaty obligations was enough.
However, Pung Chhiv Kek, president of the human rights organization Licadho, said this gave the courts too much wiggle room. With a clear definition of torture in their own books, she said yesterday, “the courts cannot say, ‘Oh, we don’t know which [international] law to use.'”
Also high on the NGOs’ list, she said, is an independent means of investigating claims of torture in Cambodia’s detention centers and overcrowded prisons.
Under an optional protocol to the Convention Against Torture ratified by the National Assembly in 2007, Cambodia must set up an independent system, called a National Preventive Mechanism, for regular and unannounced prison visits.
In its latest report to Geneva, in September, the UN’s local human rights office said it was working with the Interior Ministry to do just that.
“We are working with the government toward a compliant NPM,” Mr Heenan said yesterday, declining to elaborate on their progress.
In their own report to the committee last month, however, the NGOs say their work is overdue.
“Even 18 years after Cambodia’s accession to the convention, the country’s legal and judicial system is unable to effectively prevent and punish acts of torture,” they said.
The NGOs also accuse the government of having violated the convention when it deported 20 Uighur asylum-seekers in December back to China at the risk that they could be tortured on their return. The government has insisted that its decision was in line with its legal responsibilities.