Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday called on UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to replace Special Representative for Human Rights in Cambodia Yash Ghai, who he dismissed as a “long-term tourist.”
Hun Sen’s remarks came one day after Ghai announced that, despite the recent welcome release of political detainees and the return of SRP leader Sam Rainsy, there has been little fundamental improvement in human rights in Cambodia.
“His Excellency Kofi Annan should withdraw him. He comes without knowing anything,” Hun Sen said at the Agriculture Ministry’s annual meeting in the Chaktomuk Theater.
“I am leaving him a message…I refuse to meet you, I refuse to meet you forever,” Hun Sen said.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Ghai said a “big gap” remains between the values and procedures of the Constitution and the way state power is exercised. He added that too much power is concentrated in one individual.
“He said that power is concentrated in one person. He wants to point at me. If I am the prime minister and I don’t have power, what do you want me to do?” Hun Sen said.
“He doesn’t know what happens in this country,” the prime minister added. “He comes once for one week, just criticizing others. I tell him: You speak wrong.”
Hun Sen recommended that Ghai work on the problems of his native Kenya rather than be a “long-term tourist” in Cambodia.
He also took issue with Ghai’s criticism of his “iron fist” campaign for judicial reform. Ghai had said he was concerned that the campaign violates judicial independence by making judges beholden to the executive branch.
“Do you know about the law of the courts?” Hun Sen asked rhetorically.
Hun Sen said Ghai was lucky to have met Interior Minister Sar Kheng during his recent trip, but added that such a courtesy would not be extended again.
But he added that despite Ghai’s remarks, he would not close the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia.
Margo Picken, the office’s coordinator, said she had no comment on Hun Sen’s speech.
UN Development Program spokesman Dain Bolwell said UN Resident Coordinator Douglas Gardner was too busy to comment on whether Ghai spoke for the UN or for himself, or to comment on Hun Sen’s request for Ghai’s removal.
At Tuesday’s news conference, Ghai was asked by a Newsweek magazine correspondent to assess whether human rights had improved since Untac left Cambodia in 1993.
“Well, I suppose in some ways human rights have improved, there is more freedom of expression, greater security of the person, but my view is that the government has shown itself not very committed to human rights, some of these improvements have taken place not because of, but in spite of the government,” Ghai responded. He then praised the work of NGOs.
“It seems to me that to a great extent the improvement in human rights, not only political rights but economic and social rights, have come out of the efforts of citizens themselves and their own organizations,” he said.
“But in terms of the exercise of the power of the state, which is always of primary concern for human rights, I don’t really see any great improvement.”
He added that he was struck by what he called an “enormous centralization of power,” not only in the government but in one individual, who he did not name.
“I have talked to judges, politicians and all sorts of people and everyone is so scared. Everything depends on one individual and as I said earlier that is not really a precondition under which human rights can flourish,” he said.
US Embassy spokesman Jeff Daigle wrote in an e-mail that Ghai’s private comments to the Embassy differed from those quoted in the media.
“We will not seek to speak for the Special Representative, but, based on what he has said to us, some of the quotations attributed to him seem to be taken out of context,” Daigle wrote.
“What he may be getting at is that the human rights environment has clearly improved with the release of human rights activists and the Prime Minister has taken important steps to increase democratic space. However, we all know that building the institutions and infrastructure for democracy will take time,” he added.
The purpose of Ghai’s mission was to update a Jan 10 report on human rights in Cambodia. The report focuses on the application of the Constitution, the functioning of the judiciary and freedoms of association, assembly and expression.
“Cambodia has a good Constitution, which incorporates the core international human rights instruments to which the State is party, but the Constitution has been massively disregarded and its safeguards weakened,” the report states.
It adds that according to the Constitution, the King is more than a constitutional monarch: “He is required to intervene in affairs of the State when the Constitution, the rights of individuals and communities, or the independence of the judiciary and prosecutors are threatened or violated.”
However, the report notes that with six of nine members affiliated with Hun Sen’s ruling CPP, the Constitutional Council’s impartiality is in question. It criticizes Hun Sen for dissolving the secretariat of the Supreme Council of Magistracy last year, and using the Council as a “rubber stamp.”
The report calls for the speedy adoption of basic laws on the functioning of the courts as well as the new penal and civil codes.
It adds that many continuing elements of impunity that were identified in 2005 by Ghai’s predecessor, Peter Leuprecht, who also had a rocky relationship with the government, had been reported as far back as Untac in 1993.
Ghai also urged donor agencies and diplomats to put pressure on the government to improve human rights and democracy.
“My present assessment is that the situation has not changed fundamentally from the time when I prepared my report [in January],” he said at the news conference.
“If indeed it is true that donor agencies are not very mindful of human rights or democracy but just wish to build a cozy relationship with the government, this seems to me that they are not only failing the people of Cambodia but their own domestic taxpayers as well, who approve these grants in the expectation that the poor people of these countries will be the true beneficiaries,” he said.