Cambodia on Wednesday urged disapproving NGOs to change their “unbalanced” ways before the UN Committee Against Torture in Geneva and defended its much-criticized deportation of 20 Uighur asylum seekers last December, urging the panel to understand the “Cambodian context.”
The comments came during Cambodia’s second appearance before the committee since acceding to the UN Convention Against Torture in 1992. It was replying to a long list of questions the panel had asked the day before about its progress meeting its convention obligations.
According to a UN summary of the hearing, Cambodia called a report from local NGOs alleging the persistent use of torture by police to gain confessions “unbalanced” because it failed to mention the myriad improvements the government had made. Those improvements, the government said, included ongoing training, new prisons and funding for legal aid.
A more detailed account of the hearing, from the Hawaii Center for Human Rights, said Cambodia’s deputy permanent representative to Geneva, Ke Sovann, even suggested that local NGOs would have to change their ways.
“We need to change this kind of behavior in the future to make NGO work more credible so change can be made on the ground,” he said, according to an account provided by the center’s director.
According to both accounts, the panel’s vice chair, Felice Gaer, said the committee was “concerned” by what sounded like a warning to Cambodia’s NGOs and asked after the status of a pending law that aims to regulate the 3,000-plus nongovernmental organizations operating here.
The government has yet to release of copy of the law, which currently sits in draft form at the Interior Ministry. NGOs fear the government could wield it to stifle dissent.
Cambodia’s ambassador to Geneva, Sun Suon, also defended the government’s decision to send 20 Uighur asylum seekers back to China in December, according to the Human Rights Center, insisting it had merely applied its immigration laws.
“Try to think a little bit before blaming Cambodia,” he said. “Try to understand this in the Cambodian context.”
Under the torture convention, parties must assess the risk of torture when deporting asylum seekers.
“Was such a consideration part of the determination to return the people? Also, have you followed up on or monitored the status of the people?” Ms Gaer asked. “Unless you have something to add, I will assume you have no follow-up on that.”
The UN account of the hearing touched on their discussion about immigration but makes no mention of any particular groups.
Several panelists also called for an independent body in Cambodia to investigate claims of torture, a key provision of an optional protocol to the Torture Convention, which the National Assembly ratified three years ago. The government’s current body seats only government employees.
Nouth Savna, a member of that body who joined the hearing in Geneva, said the government would be reviewing examples from other countries to help make its own body more independent in the “Cambodian context” but still in line with the Torture Convention.
Committee members urged Cambodia to do more to alleviate its heavily overcrowded prisons, guarantee that detainees have access to a lawyer within the first 24 hours and add detailed language on torture to its domestic laws.
Mr Sovann, Cambodia’s deputy representative to Geneva, answered with the government’s standard reply—that a clause in the Constitution about adhering to all international obligations was enough.
According to the Cambodian Defenders Project, a legal aid NGO, Cambodia’s