The Foreign Affairs Ministry picked up where it left off in its strained relations with the U.N.’s human rights office on Tuesday, again telling the office’s country representative not to interfere in Cambodia’s affairs.
Briefing reporters after a 45-minute meeting between Foreign Affairs Minister Prak Sokhonn and Wan-Hea Lee, country representative for the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)—their first since the office was nearly shut down last year—ministry spokesman Chum Sounry said the government took the opportunity to remind Ms. Lee to be careful.
Mr. Sokhonn “requested OHCHR pay attention to respecting Cambodia’s sovereignty and avoid interference with the internal workings of Cambodia,” he said. “Ms. Wan-Hea Lee informed His Excellency senior minister of her honesty in implementing her duty, only within the human rights framework.”
What counts as interference, however, appears to vary drastically between the government, which seems to be trying to quell public criticism, and the U.N. rights office, which is in the country specifically to identify and speak out about rights abuses.
Upon exiting the meeting, Ms. Lee remained tight-lipped on the specifics of the discussion, saying only that the memorandum of understanding (MoU) that allowed the office to remain open “speaks for itself.”
Contacted by email, Ms. Lee said there had been an agreement between the U.N. office and the government to work closely with one another on specific issues as they emerge, “rather than allow them to snowball into larger problems.”
Relations between the OHCHR and the government became increasingly strained toward the end of last year, with a new MoU signed less than two weeks before the office was due to be shut down. The government had insisted on including a clause demanding that the U.N. office respect its sovereignty and not interfere in Cambodia’s internal affairs, a refrain increasingly used to deflect foreign criticism.
This came following a damning assessment from Rhona Smith, the U.N.’s envoy to Cambodia, at the end of her fact-finding mission in October, when she criticized the government on alleged human rights violations, politically motivated jailings and land evictions.
“As long as Black Monday protests are banned, protesters arrested and convicted, and threats against them condoned, any claims that Cambodia respects human rights will be severely compromised,” she said in a statement last month.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the U.N. should disregard the government’s talk of interference.
“It’s the Cambodian government that should cease interfering in the work of the human rights office, and start listening to and following its recommendations,” he said in an email.
Ou Virak, head of the Phnom Penh-based Future Forum think tank, said the government’s dismissive and threatening stance toward the U.N. would likely continue, as it felt increasingly emboldened by China’s growing support on all fronts.
“There has definitely been a tension about how much criticism the Cambodian government is willing to accept,” Mr. Virak said.
“In the past, the Cambodian government was dependent mostly on Western aid for the national budget,” he said. “But that all has changed and I think a more confident Cambodia, particularly with China, seems to be pushing back now.”
“You kind of think that Western influence will start to diminish slowly. I think that’s something that Western donors will probably have to live with.”