Moments after seeing off visiting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the Phnom Penh International Airport yesterday, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said the government would be closing down the UN’s local human rights office whether Mr Ban removed its outspoken director or not.
Following a closed-door meeting between Prime Minister Hun Sen and Mr Ban on Wednesday morning, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said the premier gave the secretary-general a choice: “Remove Mr [Christophe] Peschoux or the UN human rights office in Cambodia will close,” he said.
According to a broadcast of his speech yesterday at the airport, however, Mr Kanharith corrected the foreign minister.
Mr Hun Sen “asked that he shut down this office and remove Mr Peschoux,” he said. “This doesn’t mean remove Mr Peschoux or close the office. It means remove Mr Peschoux and the office has to be closed, too.”
Mr Kanharith gave no time frame for closing the office but said it would not happen immediately.
“I think the closing of the office might need a long talk…since there is an agreement that the office has to exist until 2011,” he said. The office’s presence here is a result of both UN Human Rights Council resolutions and memorandums of understanding concluded with the government.
The UN has remained silent on the matter. Xabier Celaya, spokesman for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, also declined yesterday to comment and referred all questions back to the local office.
During his various stops around Phnom Penh, Mr Ban made no mention of the office’s pending closure, either.
Questions sent to the local UN office and Mr Ban’s traveling press staff have gone unanswered.
The opposition SRP and local rights groups, however, said the office’s loss would only help silence the government’s remaining critics.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of a local legal aid NGO and a member of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, called the office a “mirror” of the government’s rights record.
“Without them, the civil society will feel concerned [because] it is a kind of shelter for civil society to be less afraid,” he said. “If it closes…it looks like freedom will narrow.”
“Without OHCHR, what avenues for justice will remain?” Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia division director, said by e-mail yesterday from Bangkok.
“The judiciary’s independence is totally compromised; there is no secret there. The so-called National Human Rights Committee is controlled by top officials with close connections to Hun Sen. The line ministries do not even bother to meet complainants, much less respond to their complaints about human rights abuses that occur in areas under their jurisdiction,” he said. “The OHCHR office is the first and last resort for Cambodian citizens whose rights have been violated—and this is precisely why Prime Minister Hun Sen wants to close it down.”
In his speech at the airport, the information minister faulted Mr Peschoux for not cooperating with the government. On Wednesday, Mr Namhong labeled him a “spokesman” for the political opposition.
Human Rights Watch called the government’s reasons a smoke screen.
“What is clear is this is not about a particular official, but rather the total unwillingness of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his top officials to be held accountable for his government’s actions that violate human rights,” Mr Robertson said.
SRP spokesman Yim Sovann called the human rights office’s pending closure “an alarming sign of the country going toward an authoritarian regime.
“The people of Cambodia need the UN,” he said. “We appeal to Ban Ki-moon to be strong and not accept what the government is doing.”
Coinciding with Mr Ban’s visit, police clashed with protesters outside his visit to the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital yesterday morning. A man helping organize the demonstrators, fighting their pending evictions from Boeng Kak lake, was chased down and arrested.
“The open beating of peaceful protesters during the visit of the UN secretary-general is [a] good indicator of how little thought this government gives to its international standing and to human rights,” Naly Pilorge, director of local rights group Licadho, said in a statement. “Either they don’t understand the harm that this sort of incident causes to Cambodia’s reputation or they don’t care. Or perhaps they just think they can get away with it.”
In yet another blow to UN-Cambodian relations during Mr Ban’s visit, the prime minister also insisted that the Khmer Rouge tribunal would shut down after the hybrid UN-Cambodian court concludes its second cases, expected to begin early next year. Similar remarks from the prime minister have sparked repeated complaints of government interference.
During a brief news conference yesterday following his tour of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Mr Ban insisted that any decision to proceed with a third and fourth case was up to the tribunal.
“This is a decision to be made by the court,” he said, but made no mention of what the UN would do should the premier make goon on his pledge to cut the court’s work short.
“The United Nations will discuss this matter with the international community and donors,” he added. “That’s all I can tell you at this time.”