Wrapping up a 10-day fact-finding mission to Cambodia, UN human rights envoy Surya Subedi yesterday delivered cutting criticism on the strength and independence of the country’s judicial system.
Mr Subedi, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, concluded his visit yesterday without a scheduled meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen, who a government spokesman said was unable to meet with the envoy due to an unspecified illness.
At a news conference, Mr Subedi said that financial and political interference, among other problematic factors, had “resulted in a [judicial] institution that has not commanded the confidence of people from many walks of life.”
In particular, Mr Subedi made note of judges whom he believed lacked any commitment to uphold justice.
“Many judges may have the necessary commitment to deliver justice according to the law, but for many this commitment is compromised by external interference, and for others the commitment is just not there,” he said.
Mr Subedi declined to go into detail when asked by a reporter what percentage of Cambodian judges he believed held no commitment to deliver justice.
“I have just concluded my mission…. I have accumulated a huge amount of information,” he said in reply. “I have to process that information…. I am sorry I will not be able to give you any precise figures at this point in time.”
Mr Subedi said both financial and political interference in the judiciary was undermining the faith that Cambodians had in their judicial institutions.
“When I say external interference, there are various examples,” Mr Subedi said. “There could be financial or otherwise…. There could be political or interference by people in powerful positions within the society.
“The conclusion I have come to is that there is, there are serious shortcomings within the judiciary.”
Mr Subedi had previously announced that a meeting with Mr Hun Sen had been scheduled yesterday as part of his mission. He said he was disappointed that he had not been able to meet the prime minister.
“Of course I am disappointed that the meeting had to be canceled because for health reasons, but at the same time I will utilize other avenues to convey my message to the prime minister,” he said.
Khieu Kanharith, Information Minister and government spokesman, said Mr Hun Sen had just returned from the hospital, but he declined to comment on how long the prime minister had spent in the hospital, or what health problem he had been treated for.
“I just know that he just returned from the hospital,” Mr Kanharith said.
Two members of the prime minister’s cabinet declined to comment about Mr Hun Sen’s health problems when contacted yesterday.
Though asked to comment several times yesterday, Mr Subedi declined to express an opinion on the defamation verdict that was recently upheld in the Supreme Court against opposition SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua.
Ms Sochua was found guilty of defaming Mr Hun Sen for announcing that she was going to sue the premier for defamation in April last year.
“One of the recommendations that I will be making [to the government], and again I have made my position clear, [is] that defamation should be decriminalized altogether,” Mr Subedi said.
“But I would not like to get involved in some hypothetical ‘what happened to each?’ [discussion]…. I stayed out of it during this mission. I will deal with such issues, if and when they evolve.”
Ms Sochua yesterday said that she had met with Mr Subedi during his visit, but had requested that he pay little attention to her case.
“I specifically said to him that he should not pay attention to my case,” Ms Sochua said. “I just asked him to put it forward as one of the thousands of other cases where people’s rights are not being respected.”
Ms Sochua added that she had asked Mr Subedi to study the electoral process when he returned for his next visit. “We have to get ready for the next elections,” she said.
Mr Subedi also made special mention of land disputes and said that petitions handed to him by affected villagers this week showed that many people did not believe they would receive justice through the courts.
“I am troubled by the impact of land disputes, land concessions and resettlements,” he said.
“If you are poor, weak and dispossessed of your land, you seem to have limited chance to obtain redress either through existing administrative land management systems, or through the courts,” he said.
Ek Tha, spokesman for the press and quick reaction unit at the office of the Council of Ministers, said that the government was taking land issues into account as it looked to improve the judiciary.
“The Royal Government of Cambodia has been [recognizing] judicial reform as a serious issue,” Mr Tha said. “I can tell you that international donors have supported… Cambodia for moving on the right track on the judiciary and land issues. International donors would have never [pledged] $1.1 billion if we failed to reach our commitment,” he said.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the free legal aid Cambodian Defenders Project, said yesterday that he welcomed Mr Subedi’s examination of the judiciary, adding that he hoped that the envoy’s recommendations would include a push to ensure that judges were apolitical.
“There are is no law that says that judges cannot be members of political parties,” Mr Sam Oeun said, adding that he would also like to see the court’s create separate chambers for civil, criminal and commercial law.
The previous UN rights envoy to Cambodia, Yash Ghai, resigned from his position in September 2008, after a turbulent three-year term where he was regularly at loggerheads with the government.
Mr Ghai’s predecessor Peter Leuprecht had a similarly rocky relationship with the government.