The UN has recalled to Geneva its senior-most human rights officer in Cambodia, Christophe Peschoux, whose relations with the government were at a standstill.
Mr Peschoux, Cambodia representative for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, will take up a senior post with “global responsibilities” in May, according to a letter his office sent to the Foreign Ministry last week.
Both Mr Peschoux and the Cambodian Human Rights Committee said yesterday that his transfer to Geneva was an internal UN matter and not a result of government pressure.
Prime Minister Hun Sen in October personally told UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that Mr Peschoux must be removed, reiterating a request made through diplomatic channels in August.
Mr Peschoux, who took office in 2007, said yesterday that the UN hierarchy had supported him as relations with Cambodian authorities worsened, but that the government had ceased cooperation with his office in November. Public statements issued by his office had proved to be intolerable to the government, he said.
“It is precisely because we did not concede to be silenced that I have been shunned internally,” Mr Peschoux said in an e-mail. Navi Pillay, the high commissioner for human rights, “indicated to the government late last year that there would be a natural turnover in the leadership of the office this year and that would happen in accordance with UN procedures. This is what is happening.”
UN human rights monitors have since the Untac era maintained tumultuous relations with Cambodian authorities, who have repeatedly targeted staff members for rebuke.
Mr Hun Sen in June 2009 sidetracked talks during his first meeting with Surya Subedi, the current UN human rights envoy, preferring instead to accuse Mr Peschoux of having attempted in 1999 to take the former head of the Khmer Rouge secret police, Kaing Guek Eav, to Belgium for trial.
Under Mr Peschoux’s tenure, operations at the Cambodia Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights were marked by a preference for providing private technical assistance to the government over public criticism.
Under a prisons monitoring program, the office worked to raise the daily allowance for detainees’ food and care from 1,500 to 2,800 riel, or about $0.70, and also sought to reform disciplinary measures in houses of detention.
But the office was not silent. Mr Peschoux in July publicly said the deportations to Thailand of two political activists opposed to the Thai government might have occurred outside the law. The remarks caused the Foreign Ministry to threaten him with expulsion.
“There are some situations about which we cannot remain silent. This is a moral and institutional duty,” Mr Peschoux said yesterday. “I have always given priority to confidential dialogue over public controversy because I feel that this is more productive, and in Cambodia a lot of issues can be discussed candidly between four eyes.”
As head of monitoring and protection for the UN human rights office from 1993 to 1999, Mr Peschoux oversaw investigations into extrajudicial killings surrounding the armed clashes of 1997 between the CPP and Funcinpec.
The investigations, during which rights workers said they were threatened with violence for attempting to enter areas where executions were said to be occurring, concluded that at least 41 people had been killed by government forces that engaged in “systematic torture.”
The reports were particularly irritating to Mr Hun Sen. In public remarks, he angrily denied the claims and said the UN office’s “lower workers” had slandered the government.
“I am requesting the UN secretary-general to change the people in Phnom Penh,” the premier said in a speech in August 1997.
The Foreign Ministry yesterday repeated accusations that Mr Peschoux had engaged in political advocacy for the opposition.
“The problems start from the personal behavior of Mr Christophe Peschoux because he behaved like a spokesperson for the opposition groups,” said Koy Kuong, the ministry’s spokesman.
“We always accept recommendations, constructive criticism, not destructive criticism.”
Mr Subedi, the UN envoy, said yesterday that Mr Peschoux had been a devoted public servant whose departure would be “a big loss for Cambodia.”
“He is not only an expert in human rights but also an expert in Cambodia. He has given many years of his service for the betterment of the people of Cambodia,” he wrote in an e-mail.
(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)
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