More than two decades after the U.N. human rights body set up an office in Cambodia, the government still seems to be struggling to figure out how to deal with it.
Unwilling to follow the office’s repeated advice to reform the politicized judiciary, respect constitutional freedoms and end rights abuses, the government is among the few in the world that is obliged to regularly defend its rights record on the world stage.
The current 10-month lapse of the memorandum of understanding (MoU) that allows the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to operate in Cambodia comes as the government has again warned the body to stay out of “sovereign” matters.
But the tension is nothing new.
The government has allowed the MoU to lapse four times in the past. In 2000, it went stagnant for nearly two years. It was halted for about a year in both 2003 and 2006, and once more for seven months in mid-2009.
That same year, Prime Minister Hun Sen called for the removal of Christophe Peschoux, then-country representative for the office, after he said two Thai rights activists had been illegally deported. Mr. Peschoux was eventually replaced after the government refused to meet with him.
His successor, Wan-Hea Lee, has taken a more diplomatic approach, staying away from public demonstrations, but has nonetheless found the office again operating without an MoU. After the last agreement expired in December, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused to renew the deal without new language about non-interference.
“Without the MoU, OHCHR’s physical presence in the country can be jeopardized,” said Iniyan Ilango, a U.N. Human Rights Forum advocacy adviser.
“Without a physical presence, OHCHR will not be able to provide a broad range of technical assistance to the government and civil society actors and monitor and report on the state of human rights from within the country.”
The partnership is not a common one. Cambodia is among only 13 countries to host a OHCHR office as of 2014, alongside countries like Honduras, which has been ravaged by gang wars and arbitrary police killings, and war-torn Yemen.
Established in the wake of the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia—which in 1993 carried out the first national elections—the human rights office was welcomed into the country to assist in projects with the government, provide training to officials and report back to the U.N. on the state of rights in the country.
The first agreement, approved in March 1996 by then-Foreign Affairs Minister Ung Huot, said the international body should assist the government “at its request, in meeting its obligation under international human rights instruments.”
Although last year’s MoU calls for “further training to law enforcement and armed forces officials with a view to increasing their knowledge of international human right standards,” the main request from the ruling CPP seems to be an end to outside criticism.
Ahead of commune and national elections, foreign donors have blasted the government for what critics say is a campaign to intimidate opposition lawmakers and activists. CNRP President Sam Rainsy and his deputy, Kem Sokha, are both facing criminal convictions; rights group Licadho places the number of political prisoners in the country at 27; and military forces have surrounded the CNRP headquarters with Mr. Hun Sen threatening to “eliminate” opponents who protest against the government.
Responding to international rebuke of the deteriorating rights situation, Ney Sam Ol, Cambodia’s ambassador to the U.N., told the 33rd Human Rights Council in Geneva last month that while dialogue was welcome, “interference” was not.
“Of course, we want to have an open dialogue with all partners. But a dialogue based on mutual respect,” he said. “We are negotiating to continue the MoU with the UNOHCHR, but we do not welcome interference in our political situation.”
Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry said he had “no idea” when—or if—the MoU with the U.N. human rights office would resume.
“The two sides are in the process of discussing—negotiating—the content of the MoU. That means the two have not yet reached an agreement,” he said, declining to comment on the government’s reason for again allowing the agreement to lapse.
“The Cambodian government is doing everything possible to try to intimidate and obstruct OHCHR’s work, and these outrageous actions need to stop immediately,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said in an email.
“Both Christophe Peschoux and Wan-Hea Lee have done an excellent job of leading the office in spite of the government’s vitriolic opposition,” he added. Still, there “needs to be immediate international pressure put on the Cambodian government to stop playing games with the office’s MOU and let them get on with their important work.”
While the lapsed MoU has not halted the organization’s work in the country, its officials have been forced to walk on eggshells, said Mr. Ilango of the Human Rights Forum.
“At present, the delays by the government in renewing the MoU has cast uncertainty on OHCHR’s presence in the country. It could be construed as a tactic to pressure OHCHR to be less active and outspoken,” he said.
The more vocal the office is, he said, the more “complicated” the renewal process may become, forcing Ms. Lee and her colleagues to “calculate the cost of some potential risk to the future of the office” before acting on human rights abuses.
Ms. Lee declined to comment on how the lack of an agreement was impacting the office’s work.
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, and Keo Remy, head of the Human Rights Committee, declined to comment on the relationship.
The latest lapse in the MoU comes amid a particularly dark time for human rights in the country, said Naly Pilorge, director of Licadho.
“In the last year alone, we’ve seen the persecution of opposition supporters, human rights workers, and activists through a deeply corrupt criminal justice system firmly aligned with the ruling party,” she said in an email.
Considering the country’s “bleak” state, “it is more important than ever to have a fully-functioning OHCHR,” she said. “The first step would be to renew the MoU without imposing restrictions that would prevent human rights monitors from doing their job.”
Ou Virak, the former head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the OHCHR carries less sway today than it did in the 1990s and early 2000s, though its importance was not diminished
“Their voice is still a lot louder than, let’s say, a national NGO,” he said. As a member of the U.N., “Cambodia has to send its players to listen to criticism, so I think it’s always in a way a thorn in the side of the Cambodian government.”
But as long as the government shrugged off criticism, claiming that foreign donors were interfering in its affairs when it comes to human rights, the status of its relationship with the OHCHR was a marginal issue, Mr. Virak added.
“If the government doesn’t have political will, it doesn’t really matter,” he said.