Cambodia’s failure to observe its own laws has left the public increasingly frightened and distressed, UN rights envoy Yash Ghai said in Geneva on Wednesday, drawing understated reactions at the Human Rights Council in a marked difference to his previous appearance before the UN body.
Ghai’s third report to the council, which he submitted Wednesday, described Cambodia as a state where the rule of law “is most threatened by the government.”
Speaking for Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s human rights adviser, Om Yentieng, appealed for understanding, saying Cambodia was a post-conflict nation and that Ghai’s most recent report to the council was selective, sensational, exaggerated and therefore unacceptable.
At Ghai’s previous address in June, council members openly called into question the need for continuing the 15-year-old mandate for a Cambodia-specific rights envoy, and a Cambodian representative called for Ghai’s removal in a response so heated local rights groups publicly came to his defense.
Cambodia’s country mandate is up for review in six months, however, council members did not call for its abolishment Wednesday.
“The developments I have outlined are causing fresh conflicts in society, a greatly increased sense of insecurity, fear of the administration, and misery to large sections of society,” Ghai said in remarks broadcast on the Internet.
“In the long run, the increasing inability of the courts to settle disputes in a fair manner will produce problems of law and order, aggravate tensions and conflicts and the risk of violence that will be hard to manage,” he said.
Ghai, who was shunned by all senior Cambodian officials during a December visit and whom Hun Sen has repeatedly refused to meet, said he had nevertheless been approached by Om Yentieng at the council.
“I am pleased to report that this morning I had a frank and constructive meeting with His Excellency Mr Om Yentieng,” said Ghai. “I was told this morning by His Excellency Mr Yentieng that the government is fully committed to the establishment of a human rights commission…. This is a move I greatly welcome.”
Briskly reading only a portion of his prepared remarks, Om Yentieng said Ghai had ignored improvements that resulted from officials’ earnest efforts.
“The assessment of the report…is not acceptable for the government, nor is it realistic in reflecting the overall context of [the] country’s development process in which Cambodia has been evolving…with its current transformation from a post-conflict country,” said Om Yentieng.
Sok Sam Ouen, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said Thursday that Cambodian rights NGOs had a year ago completed draft legislation to create a seven-member human rights body that could investigate complaints and forward cases to the court.
A working group headed by Om Yentieng was now reviewing the draft, he said, but it was impossible to say how soon the commission could become a reality.
At the council on Wednesday, representatives for the UK, Sweden and Slovenia, which spoke for the European Union, all expressed support for Ghai’s work, the continuation of the Cambodia country mandate and that of the UN human rights office in Phnom Penh.
Japanese representative Ichiro Fujisaki said Japan welcomed the report and said Cambodia had made positive steps in adopting legal codes for civil and penal procedures. Malaysian representative Moktar Idham Musa congratulated Cambodia on positive human rights developments but did not mention Ghai’s report.
Licadho President Kek Galabru, who traveled to Geneva this week to lobby council members to extend the mandate, said Thursday that the atmosphere in the room had been calm during the discussion.
“It was very quiet. Before the session, I was surprised and pleased to see Mr Om Yentieng talking with Mr Yash Ghai outside,” she said by telephone from nearby Ornex, France.
Kek Galabru said she had met with representatives of about a dozen mostly European countries which she said had been broadly in favor of the country mandate. She added that she hoped to meet with representatives from other regions.
“It’s not easy because they are most busy with the session. You have to catch the occasion,” she said.