Louise Arbour, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, is scheduled to arrive in Cambodia today for a week-long visit, the first by a high commissioner in almost four years, officials said Sunday.
Arbour’s visit comes amid strained relations between the Cambodian government and both the UN’s local human rights office and its special envoy for human rights in Cambodia, Yash Ghai.
After his second mission to Cambodia in March, Yash Ghai told a news conference that power in Cambodia was excessively concentrated in the hands of one man and that human rights could not flourish in this environment.
Like the statements of previous UN rights envoys, Ghai’s candid appraisal received sharp rebukes from Prime Minister Hun Sen, who called for Ghai’s removal, and branded the envoy “rude” and a “long-term tourist.”
Local right groups said at the time that they supported Ghai’s assessment.
“[Arbour’s] visit has been planned for quite some time,” said Henrik Stenman, deputy director of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia.
“[She] likes to visit field offices all over the world. There was a slot open in her calendar,” Stenman said, adding that the high commissioner was not visiting Cambodia in a show of support for Ghai.
The high commissioner already expressed her support of Ghai in March, said Stenman, adding that Arbour will meet with King Norodom Sihamoni and Hun Sen on Thursday.
Government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith, who, at the time of Ghai’s comments, called the local UN rights office “the most lazy staff the UN has,” referred questions about Arbour’s visit to Hun Sen’s human rights advisor Om Yentieng. Om Yentieng, who heads the government’s human rights commission, declined to comment on her visit.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said Sunday that Arbour was visiting to see for herself whether Ghai’s findings were correct.
“If Yash Ghai’s report was true, why did Samdech Hun Sen react?” Cheam Yeap asked.
He added that the prime minister may “set some conditions” on the UN rights office’s work in Cambodia, but would not elaborate.
Kem Sokha, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said Sunday that he hoped Arbour would remind the prime minister and the government of their responsibility to respect human rights.
“From 1991 until now, we still have a lot of problems,” said Kem Sokha. “The land dispute is more and more every day. I want her to explain this to the government,” he said.
“Tell [the government] about freedom of expression and they don’t care,” he added.
In terms of basic human rights such as food, housing, employment, education and health care, Cambodians have also fared poorly, Kem Sokha added.
Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said that Arbour should explain to the government that respect for human rights can bring economic benefits as well.
“They must understand that human rights is not just politics,” he said.
“Human rights can also contribute to development,” he added.