U.N. human rights envoy Surya Subedi on Tuesday received a thorny reception from hundreds of students at a Phnom Penh university, who angrily questioned his impartiality and unfurled banners calling for him to end his work in Cambodia.
Special rapporteur Subedi delivered a lecture to about 1,000 students packed into a room at the Cambodian Mekong University (CMU) on the theme of “The challenge of reconciling competing interests in the law of foreign investment.”
Mr. Subedi, a professor in international law at the University of Leeds, England, spoke technically and generally about the importance of legal protections for international investors as well as the rules to prevent abuses by companies, making only slight references to Cambodia.
“You young people are the hope for this country,” Mr. Subedi concluded at the end of his lecture. “The future belongs to you, and be alert and aware of this development and prepare yourselves to be the future leaders of this society. Thank you.”
As the floor was opened up for questions from students, 23-year-old Chea Chheng, a student of public administration at the Royal University of Law and Economics, took the microphone.
“You say Cambodia is the hell of human rights. Your report contains 180 pages describing all bad things about Cambodia. Why?” asked Mr. Chheng, referring to a report on Cambodia by Mr. Subedi in July, which was met with an angry response from the government at the time.
“Another question is: Why do we need a special rapporteur for Cambodia? Because in Cambodia, compared with other countries, the human rights situation is much better,” the student continued.
Receiving strong applause from the crowd, Mr. Chheng carried on, “Cambodia has no human rights problems. Cambodia is a sovereign state.”
Five other students from CMU and other universities around Phnom Penh then took the microphone to set about dishing out similar critiques of Mr. Subedi’s reports, which have covered matters such as land rights, independence of the judiciary and electoral reform, to yet more enthusiastic applause from the assembled young people.
Another student, who gave his name as Roth and described himself as “a normal student,” said he had read Mr. Subedi’s reports.
“It’s about a million bad things that relate to elections, law, land, property. The result [is that you agree with] the small group that we call the opposition party,” he told the U.N. envoy.
“So today, I don’t have any question, because I’m so disappointed with you,” he said.
Another student, who did not give his name, said Mr. Subedi’s reports were “full of darkness.”
“Foreigners do not know about Cambodia well. But as a Cambodian, when I read, it is impossible to believe your report,” the student said.
Another of Mr. Subedi’s inquisitors, Chet Sidet, 24, who is studying for a master’s degree in human rights law at CMU, said after the event that she asked a question simply because she thought Mr. Subedi had treated Cambodia unfairly.
“Other countries have human rights problems, why don’t they have a special rapporteur?” she asked.
Mr. Subedi told the students that he welcomed their questions.
“I was very pleased that you have the courage to ask such questions. As I said when I concluded my lecture, the future belongs to you,” he told the audience.
“But each of you will know the importance of my work in 20 years time—when you enter the real world, when you know the plight of a person who is facing the threat of eviction from land they have been living on for a long time,” he said.
Mr. Subedi also pointed out that Cambodia was not being singled out by the U.N., which has 74 rapporteurs around the world covering specific countries and issues.
“I am impartial, I’m objective, I’m independent,” Mr. Subedi insisted.
“I can understand your sentiments, but at the same time, the purpose of my lecture was not to talk about human rights in Cambodia, it was [about] the international investment law,” he added.
Once the envoy’s lecture came to a close, the students brought out banners which they had prepared with messages, in English, including, “No more U.N. Special Rapportur for Human Rights in Cambodia, please,” and “Surya Subedi—No Justice for Cambodia.” As they unveiled the banners they shouted in unison “very bad” in English.
The event finished with the university’s chancellor, Ich Seng, saying that it was “important to have a human rights forum.”
Mr. Subedi left the lecture room quietly through a back exit as groups of students held up their anti-Subedi banners and posed for photographs.