UN Official Tells Government Not to Be Defensive of Rights Record

The U.N.’s representative for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia (OHCHR) on Friday warned the government not to be defensive about criticism from other countries and civil society groups when it submits its first progress report to the U.N. Human Rights Council on 91 recommendations Cambodia accepted in 2009.

Speaking at a workshop be­tween the OHCHR and the government’s Cambodian Human Rights Committee (CHRC) in Phnom Penh, James Heenan said he wanted to “very respectfully” remind the government that the U.N.’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process is about showing what has been done and owning up to what has yet to be done.

“What the Council will be looking for is an assessment of whether the recommendation has been achieved, and if not, what the government has done towards achieving the recommendation and what are the challenges that are stopping it being achieved,” he said.

“Be honest and frank about achievements, progress and challenges,” Mr. Heenan said. “Be prepared for the session, and ensure that the people from Phnom Penh who know the reality on the ground are in the delegation and able to respond to questions.

“Don’t be defensive to constructive criticism from other member states or from NGOs,” he added.

The human rights record of every U.N. member state has to be assessed by the 47-member Human Rights Council, which is based in Geneva. NGOs have until late June to give their input. After filing its progress report in October, a Cambodian delegation will travel there early next year—likely January—to appear before the council and have the report reviewed.

Mr. Heenan also commended the decision of the CHRC—which is tasked with overseeing the process in Cambodia—to disseminate Cambodia’s 91 human rights recommendations among relevant government ministries.

But he added that while it is important for Cambodia to provide a concise report about its progress, “the…UPR is primarily about implementation, not reporting. We all know that without implementation there is little to report.”

Cambodia’s recommendations differ in breadth and scope from cleaning up the judicial sector to ensuring freedom of expression and gender equality.

What has yet to be addressed is not known. CHRC Vice President Mak Sambath said at Friday’s workshop that about 80 percent of the recommendations have been implemented, but did not elaborate as to which of those has yet to be tackled.

“We have fulfilled our obligations correctly…working together means we are successful. We have done about 80 percent; there is only 20 percent left to be done, and that will be in the near future,” he said.

Last month, the CHRC said all but 10 of the recommendations have been implemented.

Of those it has followed through on, Cambodia has ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities and optional protocols on the elimination of torture and ending discrimination against women.

But the defensive tone that Mr. Heenan warned against was already evident in the workshop, when, during his opening remarks, Mr. Sambath sought to remind everyone that even Sweden had to take home 104 recommendations, and also took offense to the term “forced evictions,” which is mentioned three times among the nine land-related recommendations.

“‘Forced evictions’ is absolutely the wrong way to put it, but we don’t mind seeing it, and are working hard to improve,” Mr. Sambath said.

He also had some choice words for members of the NGO sector, which is intrinsic to the process of compiling the report. Late last month, NGOs flagged land rights abuses and indigenous minority concerns as two issues that needed addressing before October.

“If you are a Civil Society Organization that wants to attack us, then be in the opposition party,” Mr. Sambath said.

“Don’t wear two hats. Be a CSO or be in the opposition party; you must be precise and clear. Be frank and honest. We have a huge gigantic task…civil society can watch and help fill the gaps.”

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