While the government waffles on whether to close the UN’s local human rights office, independent rights groups from near and far have continued pressing the UN and Cambodia’s international donors to help keep the office running, calling its work here essential.
Prime Minister Hun Sen told visiting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last week that he would close the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia unless its outspoken director left the country, according to Foreign Minister Hor Namhong. He labeled the director, Christophe Peschoux, a mouthpiece for the political opposition and accused him of not cooperating with the government.
“These baseless accusations against the OHCHR…are indicative of the increasingly authoritarian tendency of the current regime,” Souhayr Belhassen, president of France’s International Federation for Human Rights, said in a statement on Wednesday. “The international community must stand behind all human rights defenders in Cambodia and continue to pressure the authorities to cooperate with the UN human rights system in good faith.”
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during a visit to Phnom Penh on Monday, called the UN’s local human rights office a “valuable resource” for Cambodia but made no direct mention of the government’s threat to shut it down.
Right groups have gone further. On the day of Ms Clinton’s visit, 15 NGOs came together in calling the office’s work “essential” to improving the country’s mixed—many say deteriorating—rights record.
Little has been said, though, about what exactly the office does. Established in 1993 in line with the Paris Peace Agreements, it has been the UN’s main voice for human rights in Cambodia for the past 17 years, from putting copies of the country’s laws in the hands of Cambodia’s judges to helping the government draft the laws themselves, from investigating torture claims to helping secure the release of land protesters.
In the 1990s, Mr Peschoux himself investigated a rash of political killings during factional fighting in Phnom Penh. The office’s latest annual report to the UN Human Rights Council, meanwhile, released in September, lists its ongoing work.
As part of its land program, office staff carried out a five-month field study on evictions over the past year, facilitated discussions in some 30 land disputes and helped secure the release of several detained villagers. According to the report, it also helped convince an unnamed rubber firm to conduct an impact assessment—a legal condition rights groups often accuse firms of skipping—and mitigate its plantation’s negative effects on the local community.
For its prisons program, the office also carried out five assessment visits in the past year and 35 follow-ups, reaching some 70 percent of the country’s severely overcrowded prison population. Staff have advised on related laws, started developing a training program for prison staff, helped draft minimum standards for prison design and continued upgrading water supplies.
“The OHCHR prison program is important for a combination of factors, namely the scope of their work, their financial and technical ability to carry out large projects and their working relationship with the General Department of Prisons,” said Naly Pilorge, director of rights group Licadho, which runs its own prisons monitoring program.
She also called the office “instrumental” in nearly doubling prisoners’ daily food allowance to 2,800 riel.
In its report, the UN office also takes some credit for the Social Affairs Ministry’s decision to stop participating in the government’s periodic roundup and imprisonment of homeless people.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, a legal aid NGO, praised the UN office for the work it has done over the years filling the country’s courts with copies of Cambodia’s laws.
“Most judges are lazy to get all the documents,” he said. “So the UN office helps them a lot.”
James Heenan, the UN office’s deputy representative, declined to comment on the talk of the office’s closure but said its work was “continuing as usual.”
In fact, he said, “the past three years have seen a significant increase in cooperation with government counterparts, and a number of new initiatives have got under way in the past three months.”
Officials at the government’s own human rights committee declined to comment on the UN office. At some of the ministries the office has advised and worked with, however, opinions about its work this week ranged from welcoming to dismissive.
“Their monitoring is very useful. It can protect human rights and strengthen the prison management because sometimes we have loopholes,” said Liv Mauv, the General Prison Department’s deputy director general.
At the Social Affairs Ministry, however, spokesman Lim El Djurado said the UN office has only made matters worse.
“The office monitors and criticizes us and spreads untrue news,” he said. “It does not help us, it only exaggerates.”
As for the government’s threat to close the office, officials continued to send mixed signals.
A day after Mr Namhong announced the premier’s ultimatum to Mr Ban, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith insisted that the government would close the human rights office whether its director left or not. During this week’s visit from Clinton, however, Mr Namhong said the government had not yet decided what to do about the office once its mandate expires in January.
Then, on Wednesday, Mr Kanharith said any decision to close the office was unrelated to expelling its director.
“The closure is not tied with Peschoux’s departure,” he said by e-mail, declining to elaborate.
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said he could shed no light on the issue and deferred to his superiors.
The UN’s offices in Phnom Penh, Geneva and New York, meanwhile, have all remained silent on the matter.