The UN has agreed to coordinate an international observation program for the forthcoming polls but has warned of its right to withdraw if stringent conditions are not met.
In an April 2 letter to deposed first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh, released by his cabinet Wednesday, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he had decided to accept the Phnom Penh government’s invitation to coordinate observers for July’s scheduled election.
“Nevertheless, the United Nations continues to harbor a number of concerns, which, unless they are resolved, would hinder the prospect of free and fair elections and of their credibility thereafter,” the UN chief wrote.
These concerns, Annan wrote, included “the continued lack of prosecution of those responsible for gross human rights violations and the resulting climate of impunity, the absence of a permanent cease-fire, the presence of refugees in Thailand and the lack of equitable access to the media by the principal political forces.”
Attached to the letter was a memorandum also forwarded to the two prime ministers, laying out the UN’s role but warning of its right to “withdraw or suspend its activities relating to coordination and support of international observers if there is a fundamental deterioration in the political situation.”
Examples of hindrances that would lead the UN to reconsider its role include a lack of equal access to the media; government obstruction of the registration or participation of major political parties; a climate of intimidation; and the inability of the Constitutional Council to fulfill its role as a neutral arbiter of electoral disputes.
The conditions detailed by Annan closely reflect concerns already voiced by opposition politicians as well as human rights workers and diplomats.
In his letter to the prince, however, Annan explained he had agreed to the role in the light of recent progress by the government to smooth the path to free and fair elections—in particular, the decision to request a royal pardon for Prince Ranariddh, removing one barrier to his participation in the polls.
“My decision was arrived at after careful consideration, taking into account the progress achieved in the establishment of a legal framework in accordance with international standards for multi-party elections,” Annan wrote.
According to the memo, the UN will establish a Joint International Observer Group made up of foreign observers sponsored by foreign governments and international NGOs.
The group’s activities would be overseen by an electoral assistance secretariat, which would coordinate the deployment of a small group of long-term observers for the entire electoral process as well as a short-term team for a four-week campaign before the polls.
Observers’ duties also would include regular meetings with the government and the National Election Committee to report on their findings and suggest improvements.
In a reply to Annan dated Wednesday, Prince Ranariddh expressed his thanks for the UN’s help. The prince said he supports “in principle” the contents of the memo, but would “submit further comments” in a few days.
In his letter, the prince alluded to the problem posed by the government’s refusal to request pardons for top resistance generals convicted with the prince last month.
A Japanese peace proposal endorsed by the government and the prince’s side called for reintegrating resistance forces into the regular army. Without this move, the prince faces exclusion from the polls under an electoral law forbidding parties from controlling private militias or autonomous zones.
Without the pardons, however, resistance commanders Nhiek Bun Chhay and Serey Kosal face stiff prison sentences preventing them from retaking their former positions.
The prince and his generals have endorsed a suggestion by King Norodom Sihanouk that reintegration and pardons should take place as a package to ensure the generals’ safety. But a senior adviser to Second Prime Minister Hun Sen reiterated Wednesday the government’s unswerving opposition to such a plan.
“There will be no question of amnesty for Nhiek Bun Chhay and Serey Kosal,” Prak Sokhonn said. “The prince has to make the choice between participating in the elections and remaining with his generals.”