Surya Subedi, the U.N.’s human rights envoy to Cambodia, brought his final mission to the country to a close on Friday by voicing his frustration over the lack of headway he witnessed during his six-year tenure.
Despite praising some of the “progress” made by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government since 2009, Mr. Subedi bemoaned serious human rights violations and an enduring lack of judicial independence in the country.
“So far, the courts of Cambodia have not delivered justice in the way demanded by all Cambodians. There have been too many human rights violations taking place without anyone being held responsible,” Mr. Subedi said during his final press conference.
He offered the brutal January 2014 suppression of protesting garment workers, when military police shot dead 5 protesters and injured dozens more, as an example.
Mr. Subedi has submitted five reports on Cambodia to the U.N.’s Human Rights Council since 2009, including one on post-election violence and the failure of the government to properly investigate alleged electoral fraud in the wake of the July 2013 national election.
The envoy, who outlined recommendations to strengthen the independence of the judiciary in a 2010 report, gave a damning assessment of the current state of the country’s courts on Friday, chastising Cambodia’s “culture of impunity.”
“I am saddened to see the courts continue to be used as a means to intimidate those perceived to be critical of the government, such as human rights defenders, land activists, journalists and trade union leaders, as well as members of the opposition,” he said.
On Thursday, Mr. Subedi attended the Appeal Court hearing of 11 activists imprisoned late last year on protest-related charges that have been blasted as an effort to curb public dissent.
Calling land rights “the number one” human rights issue in the country, Mr. Subedi said he had been “overwhelmed” during recent visits by how many petitions he had received from communities seeking help in land disputes due to a lack of assistance from authorities.
“I am concerned that the management and ongoing review of economic and other land concessions continues to suffer from a lack of transparency, accountability and independent monitoring or public scrutiny,” he said.
“I am convinced that this issue, more than any other, erodes public trust and confidence in both the judiciary and the government as a whole.”
Mr. Subedi also called attention to the lack of independence of the Anti-Corruption Unit and the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, but saved some personal praise for Mr. Hun Sen.
“I understand him better now than I did and I think he understands me better. I respect him a great deal as a person, as a prime minister,” Mr. Subedi said in an interview after the press conference.
“He has been listening to me and has been receptive to some of my comments and my approach has not been to criticize the abuse of human rights for the sake of criticizing, but offering constructive criticism,” he said.
Mr. Subedi praised Mr. Hun Sen for the “groundbreaking” political deal reached in July, which saw the opposition end their boycott of the National Assembly and enshrined the NEC in the Constitution with promises of further reforms.
Voicing his predictions for Cambodia’s future, Mr. Subedi, whose tenure officially comes to an end in March, said he believed the country’s population, particularly young people, were hungry for change.
“The progress recently made seems to have instilled hope and confidence in the people, especially the youth in the country, for the future of democracy and human rights,” said Mr. Subedi during Friday’s press conference.
“The major difference between then and now rests in the people,” he added. “They are no longer afraid to speak out. People know their rights and are ready to claim them.”