UN Envoy Remains Defiant Despite Student Protest

U.N. human rights envoy Surya Subedi wrapped up his ninth mission to Cambodia on Saturday, saying the criticism he has received, including a protest last week by students calling for an end to his mandate, had only strengthened his resolve to continue his work.

Though Mr. Subedi took away some positives from his weeklong mission, it was again blighted by unfavorable remarks from members of government, allegations that some media organizations were instructed not to re­port about his visit and a student protest at a lecture he was delivering about investment that ap­peared to be organized by one of the ruling CPP’s youth movements.

U.N. human rights envoy Surya Subedi holds a press conference at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Phnom Penh on Saturday. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)
U.N. human rights envoy Surya Subedi holds a press conference at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Phnom Penh on Saturday. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)

Still, speaking at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia on Saturday, Mr. Subedi told reporters that he was satisfied with the outcome of several meetings held with senior government officials and that he was encouraged by signs that the government is implementing his recommendations, particularly related to judicial reform.

“There were two protests organized during my mission against my human rights work in the country, but they have not and will not deflate or distract me from the work that I am mandated to do in the country by the United Nations,” Mr. Subedi said in prepared remarks.

“If one were to go by the media reports, both protests seem to have been orchestrated and seem to represent the views of a tiny minority in the country whose intention was to destabilize me. On the contrary, I was greatly encouraged by the huge volume of messages of support that I received from people from various walks of life for the work that I am doing in Cambodia for the greater good of the country and for a sustainable peace, democracy and prosperity and I will continue in my endeavor.”

In an interview after his statement, Mr. Subedi said he intends to continue his work in Cambodia and that, unlike his predecessors, he would not stand down from his position due to opposition from the government.

“Many people may think because of the protest that I’m disheartened and discredited—I’m not. Actually, my resolve to help the people of this county has actually increased during this mission,” Mr. Subedi said, referring to a protest on Tuesday evening during which students angrily unveiled banners demanding that he end his mandate in the country.

“Some people are saying it has generated much interest among the youth in issues like democracy and good governance in this country. If that’s the case, it’s a welcome development. The younger people should be interested in these issues. If it contributed in any manner to that effect, it’s welcome.”

Mr. Subedi said that if his mandate—which is typically renewed on an annual basis—is renewed, he will review his position. “But at the moment, I’m not tired of Cambodia,” he said.

His predecessor, Kenyan law professor Yash Ghai, endured a litany of verbal abuse from government officials, particularly Prime Minister Hun Sen, over the course of his three-year term as special rapporteur.

It drove him to resign in late 2008, and in his resignation letter he decried a lack of support from the U.N. as he withstood the government backlash against his work.

Likewise, Mr. Ghai’s predecessor, Austrian law professor Peter Leuprecht, stepped down after five years of fractious relations with the government.

But Mr. Subedi said such criticism was just part of the human rights envoy’s role in Cambodia, and that he was committed to seeing beyond the tension that comes with each mission to the country.

“The treatment meted out to me and the comments made about me are nothing new and they don’t surprise me,” he said.

“The relationship between the special rapporteur and government here has always been a difficult one. But I think I’m someone with a high degree of resilience.

“I’m personally and professionally committed to human rights. As a lawyer, my first and foremost loyalty is to the rule of law, democracy and human rights. That’s what I believe in. There­fore, the main objective is to do your best under the circumstances. What I’m doing is [an] unpaid job, but I’m doing something for a higher objective. Those of us who have the ability, those of us appointed by the U.N., should not shy away from this higher objective because you are subject to harassment and intimidation,” he added.

Last week, Mr. Subedi met privately with Interior Minister Sar Kheng, Cambodian Human Rights Committee Chairman Om Yentieng and National Election Committee President Im Suosdey.

“The dialogue was candid, cordial and constructive,” he said. “They were forthcoming with information, acknowledged deficiencies where they exist, and prepared to work with me in a constructive manner to address the remaining challenges concerning greater protection of human rights, stronger democracy and genuine rule of law.

“Regarding the recommendations made in my report on the ways and means of enhancing the independence and capacity of the judiciary, I note that progress in the implementation of these recommendations has been very slow,” Mr. Subedi’s statement says.

“Nonetheless, I was encouraged by the assurance given to me that drafts of the three fundamental laws [on the status of judges and prosecutors, on organizing the courts and on the Supreme Council of Magistracy] that were part of my key recommendations are almost ready and will be tabled before Parliament in the first semester of 2014.”

He said that while he was informed about the difficulties involved in implementing some of his recommendations on parliamentary reform, he was “encouraged by a positive response and a willingness” to make as many changes as possible.

The visit came just two months before the July 28 national election and amid concerns from independent election monitors that the vote would be the least fair in the 20 years since the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cam­bodia organized the country’s first election since the fall of the Khmer Rouge.

Mr. Subedi, however, said this visit to Cambodia stood in stark contrast to his previous one when no government officials agreed to meet with him.

“It has been up and down,” he said in an interview.

“For instance, during my last mission, no government minister was willing to meet with me, but this time they were not only willing but forthcoming with information, saying that my recommendations were being implemented, taken on board, and even giving me a strict timeframe…it gives me a sense of satisfaction that my work is making a contribution here.”

He said he is not sure why there was an apparent change of heart, but that there appears to be an understanding that the government would benefit more if it cooperated.

“No matter what they will try to do to distract me, deflate me, destabilize me, I have maintained my independence, objectivity and impartiality,” he said. “Perhaps there was a greater realization of the work that I do here…the nature of the job. Not having a sense of cooperation isn’t helpful for the government either in the eyes of the international community. So they seem to have taken a decision to interact with me this time.”

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