In its first-ever review of Cambodia’s compliance with a principal human rights treaty, an independent UN panel has called for a moratorium on evictions in Cambodia and told the government to do more to end the abuses suffered by the sick, the poor and the powerless.
The two dozen recommendations from the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which after 14 years of delay was finally addressed by the Cambodian government in Geneva this month, called on Cambodia to ensure that its courts protect human rights, to end Cambodia’s “culture of violence and impunity” and spend more on social services for housing, food and education.
According to an advance copy of the recommendations, which were due to be published Monday but had not yet been released, Cambodia is failing to observe the most important parts of the 1976 International Covenant and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a key treaty considered part of the international Bill of Human Rights.
The committee of 18 jurists was expected to have strong words for Cambodia given the extensive and documented criticism by human rights organizations and the government’s decision not to send an expert delegation to the panel’s review, held on May 11 and 12 in Geneva.
Cambodia was defended by only two people, including Sun Suon, ambassador to Switzerland, who reportedly offered only brief replies to committee members’ questions.
Om Yentieng, chairman of the government’s human rights committee, could not be reached on Monday. Mak Sambath, the committee’s deputy chairman, referred questions to the Justice Ministry.
Ith Rady, undersecretary of state at the ministry, said he was unaware of the reason for Cambodia’s failure to send a delegation but suggested that this could be related to the cost of travel.
“Sometimes, it is related to the budget,” he said Monday, adding that Cambodia had struggled to submit the detailed reports required by the UN bodies that monitor compliance with human rights treaties but that this is a large and complex task requiring cooperation among ministries.
Cambodia’s first report to the committee was first due in 1994.
More frank than the donor countries’ periodic reporting on progress in development, the UN committee’s recommendations said Cambodians are insecure in their homes, health and education.
“The committee is gravely concerned over reports that since the year 2000, over 100,000 people were evicted in Phnom Penh alone; that at least 150,000 Cambodians continue to live under threat of forced eviction; and that authorities of the state party are actively involved in land-grabbing,” the recommendations said.
“The committee urges the state party to implement a moratorium on all evictions until the proper legal framework is in place and the process of land titling is completed, in order to ensure the protection of human rights of all Cambodians, including indigenous people.”
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said the call for a moratorium was “interference by foreigners in Cambodia’s issues.”
“This is a plan for the development of the country and various cities,” he said of the government’s handling of evictions, and he accused villagers in some cases of exaggerating their numbers to gain compensation. “It is step-by-step development,” he added.
The UN committee’s concluding observations welcomed what it called positive developments such as a 2007 finding by the Constitutional Council that ratified human rights treaties should be observed by Cambodian courts and the adoption that year of a new code of penal procedures as well as plans to increase the share of women in the civil service.
The committee however called for the creation of an independent Cambodian human rights body, the adoption of the 14-year-old draft anticorruption law and ensuring that environmental and social impact assessments are carried out when economic concessions are granted within Cambodia’s protected areas.
“The committee notes with concern that while the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the state party is declining, it is reported that the number of women being infected by their partners is increasing and that in 2006, 52 percent of persons living with HIV were females,” the committee’s observations said, calling on Cambodia to address the negative stereotypes that increase women’s vulnerability to the disease.
Cambodia has signed the nine so-called “core” human rights treaties and ratified or acceded to six of them. However, like many other countries, Cambodia has often delayed or disregarded the requirement of reporting on its observance of the treaties.
The Human Rights Committee, which monitors observance of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, reviewed Cambodia in 1999 but has not heard from the government since.
The so-called “treaty bodies” have no power to enforce their recommendations and can sometimes find themselves ignored.
In a 2002 global study of the observance of the treaties, law professors Chritof Heyns and Frans Viljoen of the University of Pretoria in South Africa found that because of criticism from the treaty bodies Russia significantly reduced the number of crimes punishable by death, Egypt released prisoners held under emergency legislation, and the Colombian government abolished the use of armed civilian militias in its ongoing civil war.
However, they found that countries which ignore the system all together often escape criticism.
“The unfortunate result is that the countries that most often end up being singled out as human rights violators are those that are engaged. Within the system, more criticism seems to be the reward for a higher level of engagement,” according to the study.
Jan Klabbers, deputy director of the Erik Catren Institute of International Law at the University of Helsinki, said the public should temper what they expect of the UN human rights treaties.
“If you’d expect the treaty to be a instantly working panacea, you’d be bound to be disappointed,” he wrote in an e-mail.
“That said, though, they may help create a [human rights] culture over time, and they provide opposition and dissidents with a vocabulary to fight injustice. Put differently: without treaty commitment, it would be more difficult to argue that Cambodia would be doing something wrong.”