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.