NGOs Question Role of Gov’t Rights Group

In mid-April the UN’s human rights envoy accused the government of burying its head in the sand on issues of impunity and cor­ruption and said human rights violations continue to occur while de­mocracy in Cambodia is sliding backwards.

Peter Leuprecht’s presentation and report were made to the 61st session of the UN Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion and represented his strongest condemnation so far of the human right situation in Cam­bodia.

But Leuprecht’s assessment al­so generated an equally strong condemnation from the government and, specifically, the head of the government’s own human rights committee, Om Yentieng.

“He just satisfied himself,” Om Yentieng said of Leuprecht last month. “His evaluation of Cam­bo­dia does not reflect the reality.”

However, in the weeks following the spat between the envoy and the committee’s chief, local hu­man rights organizations and other groups have questioned the work of the government’s human rights committee.

Though the committee does work on some cases, said Lao Mong Hay of the Center for So­cial Development, they are cases in­­vol­ving large numbers of people and it would appear the purpose is to “diffuse” tension and en­sure they do not develop into big­ger issues.

“[The committee deals] with ca­ses in which there are popular or collective actions,” Lao Mong Hay said, adding that resolutions are secured by the committee’s influence.

“Because of [Om Yentieng’s] connections and influence, he goes to the people concerned and sorts it out. Whether it is real genuine human rights investigations is doubtful,” Lao Mong Hay said.

One of Om Yentieng’s favorite tactics, Lao Mong Hay said, is to downplay problems and attack those who criticize the government, saying they are uninformed or unskilled to analyze the human rights situation.

In a recent telephone interview, Om Yentieng dismissed the comments of his detractors.

“Please talk the facts,” he said. “[The NGOs] came to me for help very often.”

Om Yentieng said the committee’s purpose is not to argue with hu­­man rights groups “but to find the facts.”

The Cambodian Human Rights Committee was created about se­ven years ago to correct what Om Yentieng said were errors in a re­port by the UN on the 1997 factional fighting.

When fighting broke out be­tween forces loyal to the CPP and Funcinpec in July 1997, allegations of abductions, executions and other human rights violations were rampant.

The UN Center for Human Rights and local and international NGOs presented numerous re­ports criticizing then-Second Prime Minister Hun Sen for what they said was not only his inaction, but his force’s alleged role in the atro­cities.

Hun Sen initially condemned the reports, demanding apologies and suggesting the closing of of­fices and that human rights orga­ni­zations should replace their personnel.

But at the end of August 1997, Hun Sen adopted a different stance and called for the formation of a national committee for human rights—which has now grown to 12 members.

In a royal decree dated Jan 18, 2000, that made the committee permanent, the committee’s stated purpose was to “preserve, protect, develop and uphold” human rights in Cambodia.

It proposed to do this by investigating cases, working with legislators to en­sure laws did not violate hu­man rights, work with NGOs and the UN to ensure human rights are pro­tected, educate the public and re­­port on the human rights situation in Cambodia.

While the committee has re­leased several reports, they have of­ten been met with criticism.

In April 2004, the committee re­leased a report on human rights in the first quarter of that year.

The re­­­port focused on 14 cases of violent mob justice and praised the Su­preme Council of Magis­tracy for dismissing two Municipal Court judges, a move numerous rights observers called a threat to judicial independence.

Though the report was re­leased just months after the as­sas­sination of union leader Chea Vi­chea, Om Yen­tieng at the time dis­missed sug­gestions that the committee had ignored political kil­lings, saying there was no evidence that any killings were politically motivated.

Kek Galabru, president of rights NGO Licadho, said she was ap­proached by Om Yentieng in Au­gust 1997 to join the government committee, but declined because she believed the committee would not be independent.

Over the years, Kek Galabru said, the committee has not done enough on human rights, as shown by its lack of involvement in cases like the March 21 Poipet shootings by police that left five villagers dead, or the January 2004 killing of union leader Chea Vi­chea.

Kek Galabru also said the committee always presented a positive assessment of the situation in Cam­bodia.

“The government thinks the [hu­man rights] committee can protect the government,” she said.

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