The outgoing UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on Wednesday chastised the government for a recent high-profile trafficking case involving underage girls and urged the government to do more to stem the tide of human trafficking in the first-ever address by a UN high commissioner to the National Assembly.
“I can only say that I regret the Cambodian court verdict on Aug 5, which charged victims of trafficking with illegal migration and issued them prison sentences,” Mary Robinson said during her address to the Assembly.
Robinson was referring to a decision by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, which convicted 10 Vietnamese prostitutes rescued from a Svay Pak brothel and ordered them to be deported after they completed their prison sentences.
Seven girls received two-month sentences and three were sentenced to serve three months in prison for illegal migration.
The youngest of the trafficked sex workers said she was 13 years old.
“Those who have the misfortune to be trafficked are not criminals, but simply victims,” Robinson said. “There is a clear distinction between victims of trafficking and illegal migration which should not be confused.”
Without naming a specific government, Robinson also said that traffickers “are able to operate with impunity because of inefficient law enforcement, compounded, in some cases, by official corruption.”
While she acknowledged that Cambodia passed key international human rights conventions and domestic initiatives—such as the Five Year Plan of Action against Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation of Children—to combat trafficking, she urged the Assembly to implement these laws and to do more.
Funcinpec President and Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh said trafficking “is a serious crime that affects human dignity” and promised the parliament would resume a debate on the issue.
Robinson declined to comment outside the Assembly when a reporter asked her about the stalled Khmer Rouge trial, saying she would focus on judicial and legal reforms as well as human trafficking.
The trafficking issue appeared to be the priority for Robinson during her three-day visit to Cambodia. Immediately after speaking to the Assembly, Robinson and her entourage of UN officials met with Pierre Legros, an adviser to the women’s protection NGO Afesip.
Legros, who said Robinson was “100 percent receptive” to the briefing he gave her on trafficking, expressed doubt that the UN could impel the government to strengthen laws or stop trafficking.
“The UN is inefficient compared to the money and resources” at its disposal, he said after speaking with Robinson.
Veronique Taveau, the high commissioner’s press assistant, refused to comment on two occasions on the content of Robinson’s discussions with officials.
After meeting with local NGO officials, Robinson met with Minister of Cabinet Sok An, who said Wednesday that Robinson is “very interested in judicial reform and discussed other points.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Pen Thol added that Robinson raised several issues of judicial reform with Sok An, including the shortage of lawyers and the lack of employment for law graduates in the country.
Near the end of the day, Robinson held a private meeting with Prime Minster Hun Sen at his residence. Although neither Hun Sen nor Robinson briefed the media after their meeting, the prime minister’s spokesman, Eang Sophalleth, said the two discussed issues of development, poverty and judicial reform.
Eang Sophalleth said Hun Sen is committed to stopping human trafficking. “[Trafficking] is a big concern with the government,” he said. “That is why the government closed the karaoke parlors—to prevent human and drug trafficking.”
Robinson, who will be replaced by the former head of the UN’s mission in East Timor, Sergio Vieira de Mello, on Sept 12, is scheduled to travel to East Timor today.
(Additional reporting by Bill Myers)