UN Envoy Says Rights Reforms Still Too Slow

Visiting UN human rights envoy Surya Subedi this week said the government was still moving too slowly on judicial reforms and described “concerns” about the way Cambodia’s legislature fulfills its role in democracy.

In an interview on Wednesday, Mr Subedi described a small measure of apparent progress in legal reforms, which he said amounted to a “major undertaking.”

But he said he had seen little to change his mind since his last visit in February, when he said democratization here was not “speedy” as it should be.

“My position has not changed, and things have not changed much in the country, either,” he said.

Human rights organizations have had much to discuss since Feb­ruary. Court monitors were taken by surprise last week when the Court of Appeal changed the charge in a disinformation case without hearing new arguments.

Two weeks earlier, appellate judges had upheld the incitement conviction of a UN employee for handing out material printed from the Internet that criticized the government. In April, the human rights group Adhoc complained that provincial courts were holding up dozens of land dispute and illegal logging cases for years.

Mr Subedi declined to discuss specific cases, saying that he was “looking at the overall framework of the judiciary, where the weaknesses are in the system, from investigation to prosecution to adjudication.”

In October, he made 37 broad-ranging recommendations for reforming the judiciary, attached to a report that described a court system plagued by corruption.

Among them was a call to decriminalize defamation. Human rights workers say the government wields the charge to silence its critics. A new penal code that took effect late last year continues to criminalize defamation.

Mr Subedi was also reluctant to pass judgment on the speed with which his recommendations were reviewed.

“What I am asking the government to do is a major undertaking,” he said. “In any country enacting new laws takes time, so it’s not something I’m expecting the government to deliver overnight. But I would like to see some progress made to that effect. And the impression I was given…was that progress has been made.”

On the subject of defamation, Mr Subedi said he might have made headway with Cabinet Minister Sok An when the two met privately in February.

“I thought perhaps…I was having some influence there but that remains to be seen,” he said. “The proof of the pudding is in the eating. That’s what they say.”

Mr Subedi said he was told that that the three “organic laws” he recommended the government pass–to lay out the most fundamental rules for maintaining independent courts–had finally reached the Council of Ministers for review.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said he was out of the office yesterday and could not confirm this information.

A Justice Ministry official said Mr Subedi’s recommendations may be entirely suited to Cambodia.

Secretary of State Prom Sidhra, who met with Mr Subedi in February, suggested some of them might be too “Anglo-Saxon” to apply here.

“Our judicial system is more European,” he said. “Our courts and our laws are like that. We think it offers justice. That’s why we use it.”

Mr Subedi said he was spending most of the trip studying the country’s legislature. He wants to know how effectively it has held the executive to account.

Opposition lawmakers say that the CPP, with a commanding majority in Parliament, has ramming through controversial laws with little time for debate.

He admitted to having some “concerns” but would not discuss details, declining to directly address the 12-year jail term for disinformation and incitement which opposition leader Sam Rainsy is avoiding by remaining outside Cambodia.

“To make sure that the values of liberalism and pluralism are respected, I hope Parliament in general, and the National Assembly in particular, will be as accommodating as possible,” said Mr Subedi.

“Having a two-thirds majority doesn’t mean there are no limitations. There are limitations imposed by the Constitution. There are limitations imposed by international law. There are limitations imposed by international human rights treaties,” Mr Subedi said. “Having two-thirds majority doesn’t mean the ruling party is free to do whatever it wants.”

Mr Subedi ends his visit today. He will present his findings on Cambodia’s legislature to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in September.


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