The UN’s human rights envoy to Cambodia called SRP president Sam Rainsy’s recent 10-year jail sentence a “setback” for the country during a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Tuesday and stressed the need to abolish criminal disinformation.
Surya Subedi’s remarks followed his report on the state of Cambodia’s judiciary, which he has called corrupt “at all levels.” While most countries backed Mr Subedi’s report, China and some of Cambodia’s neighbors called it too critical and urged the Council not to interfere in the country’s internal affairs.
In a report released earlier this month that painted Cambodia’s courts as corrupt, incompetent and politically compromised, Mr Subedi said judges and prosecutors should be barred from party membership and that the government should be denied a role in appointing members to the Supreme Council of the Magistracy, the body charged with assuring the judiciary’s independence.
In Geneva, Mr Subedi’s remarks swung between praise and concern.
“Cambodia has made progress in reconstructing a system of justice nearly from scratch and in enhancing both its independence and capacity,” he said, noting the recent passage of a new penal code and anticorruption law.
But the judiciary’s challenges, he added, remained persistent and “tremendous.”
“The poor, weak and marginalized, including those involved in land disputes, seem to have difficulty in obtaining justice from the judiciary and seem to be knocking on every other possible door, including that of the prime minister,” Mr Subedi said.
And since a fact-finding mission to Cambodia in June, he said the plight of activists and opposition members had only gotten worse.
“Since the submission of my report, I regret that there has been a further setback with respect to freedom of expression in two separate cases,” he said.
He referred to the sentencing both of Mr Rainsy and of Leang Sokchouen, an employee of the human rights group Licadho, to 10 and two years in prison, respectively, within the past month.
“I would like to reiterate my calls on the government to decriminalize defamation and disinformation altogether to allow for a healthy public debate and expression of views,” he said. “No one should face imprisonment for the peaceful expression of views and opinions.”
In Cambodia’s defense, the country’s ambassador to Geneva, Sun Suon, urged the Council to take a “historical perspective” on its human rights record and called some of Mr Subedi’s recommendations “inconsistent.”
“We believe there are some [recommendations] in fact inconsistent with the government view that require the continued dialogue through sharing information and promotion of a better understanding of those issues,” Mr Suon said, without mentioning which recommendations he was referring to.
He said the government was making strides in accelerating the legislative process, increasing the judiciary’s budget and reviewing existing laws.
Mr Suon also took on Cambodia’s critics over land rights.
“The government is…committed to its current agenda that [aims] at solving land issues in a comprehensive manner in the year ahead,” he said. “The ultimate goal is to make sure that land distribution…is made available to people who are in real need, in particular the poor and vulnerable people.”
But Australia, the US and Sweden all raised concerns over the government’s ongoing evictions.
“Australia remains particularly concerned about ongoing forced displacements, evictions and land disputes, which have a particular impact on impoverished and indigenous communities,” said the Australian delegation’s Sally Dawkins.
Australia and a handful of the Western delegations on the Council also echoed Mr Subedi in calling on Cambodia to decriminalize disinformation.
Cambodia’s regional neighbors were more forgiving.
Thailand, like Mr Suon himself, said any measure of Cambodia’s human rights record must bear in mind the country’s “historical struggle.” The Philippines said concern over reforms in Cambodia that were still in progress was “regrettable.”
China, Cambodia’s largest investor, urged other countries to up their assistance to Cambodia but to resist domestic meddling.
“We hope that relevant assistance to Cambodia will focus more on the real needs of the country and pay attention to avoiding interference in its internal affairs,” said the Chinese delegation’s Giu Ying Ying.
In his closing remarks, Mr Subedi said his work did not end with his report.
“My work doesn’t finish here,” he said, promising to press the government for an action plan on his recommendations with a clear timeline. He said the government had already informed him that his recommendations were under review.
Mr Suon said the Cambodian Human Rights Committee had also sent Mr Subedi some initial “general comments,” but did not elaborate.
Contacted in Cambodia, the Committee’s deputy chairman, Mak Sambath, would not share a copy of the comments with a reporter yesterday but held out the possibility of releasing them later.
“The situation of human rights has improved very much, and if it were as some have accused no foreigner would ever come to Cambodia,” he said. “What [Mr Subedi] says and writes is his right, but Cambodia is a sovereign country. The courts have implemented the laws, and we know the judiciary is independent.”