Human Rights Center Takes Government Flak

There is a small sign, barely noticeable, above the front door of the UN human rights center in Phnom Penh:

“Nothing is more closed than a closed mind that thinks it is open. And nothing is more man­ipulated than a manipulated mind that thinks it is free.”

It’s a reminder to rights workers of the nature of their mission. But more and more, it is the UN employees themselves—who have documented the executions of dozens of opponents of the ruling CPP in the past 18 months—who are accused of having closed minds.

“Some people in the Human Rights Center, they have adopted an anti-government stance,” chief government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said last week. “They come here and say, ‘All these guys are bad guys.’ They have this in mind.”

Since the crackdown on anti-government protests this month, criticism of the local office of the UN High Commissioner for Hu­man Rights has intensified. And the UN center’s role in documenting more than 12 bodies of people suspected of being murdered because they took part in dem­onstrations has not helped.

Last week, the government impounded a UN vehicle after police accused the monitors in­side of leading a demonstration.

On Sunday, a government re­port suggested that UN workers investigating the bodies jumped to conclusions, tampered with evidence and even stole gold teeth from a corpse.

“The heat has definitely been turned up over the past couple of weeks,” admitted Rosemary McCreery, the human rights center’s director. “But then that was bound to be.

“There has sometimes been a perception that we have not been neutral, but we do what we can to redress that perception.”

The center’s workers say the criticism is almost inevitable, given the nature of their work. They deny they are biased, but say their reports may seem anti-CPP because many of that party’s enemies have turned up dead.

“I think they don’t understand that we would be doing our jobs the same way no matter who was in government,” said Brad

Ad­ams, a former UN center em­ployee who spent three years as a human rights investigator.

“They think that because we gather facts that inevitably make certain people in government look bad, that means that we have a goal of making the government look bad,” Adams said.

That perception was exacerbated during the recent demonstrations, partly because many anti-government protesters seemed to look on the UN monitors as their allies. After UN vehicles drove in front of the demonstrations, some government officials accused the monitors of instigating the pro­tests. The UN vehicle impounded by the government Sept 14 be­longed to the of­fice of the UN secretary-general’s personal representative.

“We highly appreciate the role of [the UN], but some of the work­ers have used the vehicles to show their non-neutrality,” Khieu Sopheak, Interior Ministry spokesman, said last week. “This damages the UN image.”

The complaints prompted Mc­Creery to issue a memorandum to the government and others explaining the role of the UN monitors. In it, she said the monitors had a goal of maintaining a visible presence to discourage violence, and that sometimes UN vehicles drove ahead of demonstrators to observe at a distance.

But, she made clear, “Under no circumstances have teams ever ‘led’ demonstrations.”

Relations between the government and the human rights center have been tenuous since the center was founded in 1993 un­der an agreement with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The agency was charged with monitoring human rights and conducting training programs for all Cambodians, including the po­lice, military and NGOs. The ag­ency also monitors courts, labor issues, prison conditions and promotes and other human rights.

In 1995, the government asked the UN to close its office. “We want to show the world that we are no longer in a critical situation for human rights,” then-first prime minister Prince Norodom Ran­ariddh said at the time.

He and Second Prime Minister Hun Sen later agreed to renew the center’s mandate after meeting with a high-level UN official.

After the prince was ousted last year, the center stirred the government’s ire again. The UN re­ferred to the fighting as a coup d’etat and documented what it called the systematic hunting down and killing of at least 41 key Funcinpec supporters.

In November 1997, Hun Sen and his new co-prime minister, Ung Huot, wrote to UN Secre­tary-General Kofi Annan complaining of bias in the report.

Two months later, during UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Rob­inson’s visit, Hun Sen trotted out three Fun­cinpec officials whom he said the report listed as dead. Hun Sen claimed that finding the men alive and well proved the UN center’s reports were unreliable.

In fact, two of the men were listed in the report as missing, not dead. And the third was the brother of a man who had been executed. The brothers’ names differed by only two letters.

Thomas Hammarberg, the Stockholm-based UN special envoy to Cambodia for human rights, was scathing in his re­sponse to Hun Sen. “I hope the government will now spend the same energy going ahead with the investigations as they have done trying to discredit the memo,” he said in February.

The government still has not made any arrests in the post-fighting executions. But its relationship with the center is still rocky. Critics say the center oversteps its mandate and focuses more on criticizing rather than cooperating with the government.

“What is the role of the UN Human Rights Center? It is to promote human rights and to promote cooperation,” Khieu Kanharith said. “But, you know, they close the door. To them the government is…the enemy.”

But the center still functions. “We are allowed to do our work,” McCreery said. “We have good access. We are not being ob­structed. It is better than it looks on the surface.”

“They play both roles, as judge and as police. It is wrong, very wrong.”

The center’s current mandate is due to end in March 2000. McCreery admits that the government could at any time insist that the center close any time before then.

But, she said, “There’s no point in worrying about it and nothing we can do to prevent it…without stopping doing our work, which we are not prepared to do.”

 

 

 

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