The UN’s human rights envoy to Cambodia, Peter Leuprecht, raised growing concerns with Prime Minister Hun Sen this week about recent violence and killings and critiqued development practices that benefit the rich more than the poor.
In his 10th mission to Cambodia, Leuprecht did not discuss the recent ruling by a Thai court to extradite opposition activist Sok Yoeun, a political refugee recognized by the UN refugee agency, with the prime minister.
Leuprecht instead prioritized land and forestry issues in his nearly two-hour meeting at the premier’s house on Monday.
“The prime minister said he felt that in his political career he had made two big mistakes. He said one was on land policy and the other on forestry policy,” Leuprecht said in a Tuesday evening interview at Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh.
Leuprecht described his discussion with the premier as “a very constructive and positive meeting in a very friendly atmosphere.”
The meeting offered a stark contrast to attempts Leuprecht previously has made to meet Hun Sen. Although this was not their first meeting, Hun Sen has failed to meet Leuprecht in the past.
“I told [Hun Sen] concessions are handed out in the name of development, but development should be development for the people and not, in the first place, for foreign companies,” he said.
In response, Hun Sen “did say that they would consider withdrawing further concessions…. He didn’t go into detail. But he obviously seems to think that the land and forest policy could have been better, and more effective, than it was,” Leuprecht said.
Leuprecht said he advised Hun Sen to seriously review the government’s policies on granting concessions and condemned continued illegal logging.
“The government should check very carefully whether the companies that have concessions are complying with the contracts. I think many of them are not,” he said. “The prime minister said that concessions should not affect people who live on the land to which the concessions is granted.”
Leuprecht also questioned Hun Sen about the killings of Funcinpec adviser Om Radsady and Municipal Court Judge Sok Sethamony and the recent slaying of pro-Funcinpec radio journalist Chuor Chetharith.
The shooting death in August of a young girl on a Kompong Cham rubber plantation, and the “cruel torture” of a young boy scavenging for scrap latex at a plantation were also noted concerns.
Leuprecht said numerous times that he can “only hope” that government action would match Hun Sen’s verbal commitments to find and penalize the perpetrators.
Leuprecht also said he lamented the terms of Cambodia’s accession to the World Trade Organization, saying the conditions of the deal are unfair.
Cambodia’s WTO membership eliminates the possibility of farm subsidies, and the agreement on low tariffs on imported agricultural goods are far lower than those currently imposed on agricultural goods imported to the US, the European Union and Canada.
“What I regret, is that there does not seem to have been a serious assessment of the consequences that WTO accession might have on the fundamental human rights of Cambodians,” he said. “When I speak of human rights, I include not only civil and political but also economic, social and cultural rights. I believe that poverty is a fundamental human rights issue.”
Leuprecht said he did not discuss the plight of Montagnard refugees with Hun Sen, but he said Tuesday that Cambodia should adhere to its commitments under the UN refugee convention.
“It’s too easy to say these people are illegal immigrants,” he said. “Under the refugee convention, the main criteria is fear of persecution. And I think many of these people have reasons to fear persecution.”
Hun Sen addressed all of Leuprecht’s concerns Monday, and committed verbally to securing the precarious status of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Leuprecht said.
Hun Sen said very clearly: “You, the Office, can stay as long as you want,” Leuprecht said.