While at UN headquarters in New York last month to seek funding for a proposed Khmer Rouge tribunal and support for Cambodia’s seat on the Security Council, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong signed four international agreements on behalf of the government.
If ratified and followed, the conventions could improve civil rights and the lives of migrant and sex workers. But given Cambodia’s poor record on adhering to international agreements and conventions, experts questioned the likelihood that the documents signed in New York will herald significant change at home.
Of the four instruments Hor Namhong signed, The Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is viewed by many as the most significant. It would enable the UN Human Rights Committee to consider complaints sent directly from individual Cambodians who claim to be victims of human rights violations.
“Cambodia has been a party to the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights for 12 years now, and ratifying this protocol would for the first time enable individual Cambodians to go to a UN body once they have exhausted all domestic remedies to their human rights complaint,” Saku Akmeemana, a UN center for rights spokeswoman said.
Hor Namhong also signed the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, which seeks to end clandestine trafficking of undocumented workers and guarantee the human rights of both documented and undocumented migrants.
The convention provides a set of standards on the responsibilities of both sending and receiving countries, including the obligation to provide “sound, equitable, humane and lawful conditions” for international migration.
Also signed were the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others, as well as its Final Protocol, which must be separately signed and ratified.
However, that convention, which is more than 50 years old, has become largely irrelevant, said Aarti Kapoor, legal adviser to the NGO Afisep.
“It was totally inadequate, and that’s why it was OK for Cambodia to sign it,” said Kapoor, adding that the convention concerning migrant workers was much more important for people concerned with the sex trade.
“A lot of the [prostitutes] who come from Vietnam aren’t even recognized as trafficked victims. They’re seen as illegal immigrants. When I look at this problem, I recognize it as a migration problem more than a trafficking problem,” Kapoor said.
If the conventions are ratified by parliament, Cambodia is required to submit reports to the UN on steps taken toward implementation within one year of their entry.
But for the conventions to be meaningful, “the government must write a regular, credible report,” said Kek Galabru, founder of local rights group Licadho.
She gave the example of Cambodia’s first report on women’s rights for the Convention of the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, which was finally sent this year.
“We ratified in 1992, now we are in 2004. We are 10 years late,” Galabru said. She added that NGOs prepare shadow reports to patch government omissions.
Cambodia’s tardy initial CEDAW report submission is not the exception to the rule: The initial report on racial discrimination was a year late; children’s rights, three years late; civil and political rights, four years late; torture and cruel punishment, nine years late; economic, social and cultural rights, now a decade overdue and never submitted at all.
“To sign is just a show,” said Koul Panha, director of the independent election monitoring NGO Comfrel.
“There are a lot of good written documents, but the implementation is inconsistent,” he said.
“[On] freedom of expression, freedom of…assembly, [Cambodian politicians] always talk about internal interests…and values. It’s not consistent with their ratification of the conventions,” he said.
The situation is similar with regards to Cambodia’s ratification of the UN Refugee Convention and its recent poor treatment of Montagnard asylum-seekers fleeing neighboring Vietnam.
“They treat the Montagnards differently. It’s very disappointing,” Koul Panha added.