The two prime ministers have asked the UN to limit the role of international observers in upcoming elections, proposing changes that electoral watchdogs say would hobble monitoring of the polls.
Saying they are concerned about neutrality of the election observers, Second Prime Minister Hun Sen and First Prime Minister Ung Huot sought to remove provisions that would allow observers to make recommendations on improving the election process.
Their proposal, made in an unpublicized letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, would also drop references to transfer of power after the elections and remove a condition that the Constitutional Council be functioning in time for the polls.
It would make Cambodian law, not international standards, the benchmark for the observers’ evaluation.
The prime ministers’ proposal drew criticism from political analysts this week.
“To me, this is an attempt to prevent serious monitoring of the electoral process,” said Lao Mong Hay, president of the Khmer Institute for Democracy and a member of the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections.
“The international observer team would be reduced to a toothless watchdog” if the UN consented to the two premiers’ request, he said.
The UN has not agreed to any of the proposals, according to Lakhan Mehrotra, Annan’s representative in Cambodia.
“We are not talking about changes,” he said Wednesday.
Mehrotra said Annan sent a memorandum of understanding to the government on April 2 that stands as the guidelines for the UN’s coordination of international observers.
The UN, which administered the 1993 elections, will not have a direct role in this year’s polls. However, it has agreed to coordinate the deployment of hundreds of international observers from dozens of countries to ensure they are free and fair.
In their April 13 response to Annan, Hun Sen and Ung Huot included a proposed revision of the guidelines. Among the changes:
• Replacing the word “monitor” with “observer” wherever it appeared.
• Striking language that allows observers to make public statements that “may include recommendations on how the [electoral] process can be improved. The proposed new language would require observers to submit public statements to the government and the National Election Committee before releasing them “to avoid confusing public opinion.”
• Limiting the observers’ mandate to the end of vote counting. The UN memorandum stipulates that observers assess the electoral process through “the convening of the new National Assembly and the establishment of a new government based on the election results.”
• Removing the condition that the as-yet-unformed Constitutional Council be able to “exercise its authority as laid down in the Constitution and the [electoral] law.” The UN memorandum calls for it to review its role in the elections if the Council is unable to function.
• Substituting Cambodian “laws and regulations governing these elections” for “international recognized criteria” as the benchmark for whether elections can be considered free and fair.
In their letter to Annan, Hun Sen and Ung Huot expressed concern about the neutrality of the international observers and of certain UN personnel.
The CPP complained of irregularities in the 1993 UN-administered elections, which the party narrowly lost to Funcinpec, and has recently complained to Annan that some UN human rights officials—including Annan’s special representative to Cambodia on human rights, Thomas Hammarberg—appear biased against the government.
“We…reiterate our legitimate request that UN officials be appointed as coordinators of observers and other officers, especially in the Center for Human Rights, must maintain a cooperative and neutral attitude and not at all pursue their own political agendas,” the premiers wrote to Annan.
Mehrotra said that while the UN did not agree to the two premiers’ request for changes, the two sides now have “full agreement on what the role [of monitors] should be.”
“Their major concern has been respect for the laws of Cambodia,” Mehrotra said. “We have assured the government of Cambodia that the UN will act with complete impartiality. I am confident the UN will play its role without any favor or prejudice.”
He declined to speculate on why the government would want to keep observers’ mandate from assessing the transfer of power after elections, but added, “the second prime minister has assured everyone publicly that he will accept the results of the election, so there is no problem on that score.”
Thun Saray, spokesman for the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said the observers’ role should include the election aftermath.
“We still worry about the transfer of power,” he said. “The international observers should stay longer than just election day.”
After the 1993 elections, CPP officials who refused to recognize Funcinpec’s victory led a secessionist movement that threatened to rekindle the decades-long civil war. The movement forced Funcinpec to accept its rival into a coalition government, which the CPP now dominates.
Thun Saray said the proposed changes would reduce the independence and authority of the monitoring mission.
“If it is like this, the international observer has no role to play,” he said. “If [the prime ministers] want to have credibility for the elections, they have to give more of a role to the observers.”
“Perhaps they would like to limit the role of the international observers. Perhaps they worry that the observers will denounce some irregularities or violations that may happen in the future, condemning the ruling party,” Thun Saray said.
But, he added, the prime ministers did have a point in insisting on the neutrality of observers. “If the observers are not impartial and neutral, they will damage the election also.”
Comment from the two premiers’ offices was not available Thursday. A spokesman for Ung Huot referred all questions on the April 13 letter to Hun Sen spokesman Prak Sokhonn, who is in Bangkok with the second premier.