An alliance of human rights groups on Friday came to the defense of UN envoy Yash Ghai after a Cambodian official told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that the government no longer recognizes his mandate.
Following Ghai’s presentation to the Council on Tuesday, Cambodia’s Ambassador to Switzerland Chheang Vun said the country no longer accepted the rights envoy and rejected his conclusions, saying they focused only on negative aspects of Cambodia’s situation.
“In the name of the government of Cambodia, I am asking the Council to review the position of Mr Yash Ghai as Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for human rights in Cambodia,” he said, according to video footage of the session posted at the UN Human Rights Council Web site.
“We are asking you here to take note that we no longer accept the mandate of Mr Yash Ghai in Cambodia,” Chheang Vun said.
Calling itself “deeply concerned,” the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee—a coalition of 22 NGOs—said Chheang Vun’s comments appeared to indicate Cambodia’s intention to cease cooperating with the UN on human rights.
“CHRAC notes that, by attacking the UN Special Representative, the Cambodian government no longer seems cooperative with this important UN mechanism,” the group said in a statement.
“Yash Ghai is being attacked not because of any actual bias or selectivity in his work but rather because he has focused on the ongoing human rights violations in the country,” CHRAC said.
The UN rights council may issue as early as today, at the conclusion of its fifth session, a resolution on whether to renew the reporting mandates of both the rights envoy and the UN human rights office in Phnom Penh.
In presenting his third report to the council on Tuesday, Ghai delivered an address claiming that a wealthy Cambodian minority was enriching itself through the exploitation of both the poor and the state apparatus.
In his third report on the country, which was released in March, Ghai said the abuse of human rights in Cambodia had become key to the government’s hold on power.
In prepared remarks, Chheang Vun took particular exception to this.
“It is grave that Mr Yash Ghai says that the abuses of human rights are intentional, systematic and perpetrated by the government in the sole aim of conserving its power,” he said.
“In the name of the royal government, we are reaffirming that these accusations do not reflect the reality of human rights in Cambodia…. Cambodia categorically refutes what Mr Ghai says.”
Representatives of Asean nations defended Cambodia at the council from what they viewed as Ghai’s excessive criticism, and called attention to what they said was the country’s progress.
Philippines representative Juvener Mahilum-West congratulated Cambodia on the adoption of the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s internal rules, and cited other examples of progress such as poverty reduction and successes in primary education.
“We join others in giving recognition to these achievements, urging that these accomplishments be further built on,” she said.
Indonesian representative BYP Siahaan said that failing to notice progress was unfair to Cambodia.
“Any efforts to eclipse the progress made will seriously undermine the efforts and complexity of the situation faced by the country,” he said.
“We would like again to stress our aversion to country mandates as so far they seem to be ineffective in engaging the country concerned and tend to be politicized.”
Malaysia’s Westmoreland Palon said that Ghai’s report had been one sided.
“The report fails to take into account improvements on the ground in Cambodia and the efforts being continuously undertaken by the government to consolidate democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights,” he said.
However, several of Cambodia’s Western donor nations offered at the council’s session varying degrees of support for the rights envoy and the UN’s human rights office in Phnom Penh.
Speaking for the European Union, German representative Anke Konrad said that Europe was behind both Ghai and the Cambodia Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
“The EU takes this opportunity to state its clear support for the work of the [UN human rights office] in Phnom Penh as well as for the mandate of the special representative for human rights in Cambodia,” she said.
Canadian representative Paul Meyer said that his country viewed Ghai’s report as correct.
“It is, in our view, broadly an accurate outline of some of the principal human rights issues and challenges that Cambodia faces today,” he said.
US representative Jan Levin also expressed support for the UN center for human rights in Cambodia and for Ghai, adding that the US shared many of Ghai’s concerns.
The SRP on Friday issued a statement in support of both Ghai and the UN adequate housing rapporteur Miloon Kothari, who spoke in Geneva on Tuesday and was also rebuked by Chheang Vun.
SRP Secretary-General Mu Sochua said Sunday that without international human rights scrutiny, it was Cambodia’s poorest who would suffer most.
“The people who have fallen through the cracks, those are the people who will lose,” she said. “Every person the UN comes up with, the government wants to replace.”