UN Rights Envoy, Gov’t Trade Accusations

UN human rights envoy Peter Leu­precht has accused the government of burying its head in the sand on issues of impunity and corruption and said democracy in Cambodia is sliding backward.

The government must take real action to address such issues and stop providing “lip service” to the in­ternational community, Leu­precht said.

“Although [cases of impunity are] well documented, the prime minister and his government persist in an ostrich-like way to deny it and to say it does not exist in Cambodia,”  Leuprecht told the 61st session of the UN Hu­man Rights Commission in Ge­ne­va on Tuesday.

The government quickly shot back, with Cambodia’s UN ambassador saying Leuprecht’s report “does not reflect the real situation in Cambodia” and attacking the en­­­voy’s views on what constitutes pro­gress.

“We regret Special Represen­ta­tive Mr Peter Leuprecht’s impatience, intolerance and lack of realism,” Ambassador Chheang Vun said. “He is deceiving when he puts in his report that there is no constant and notable progress.”

The two men’s reports were presented to the UN session in Geneva and triggered a back-and- forth debate with both sides de­fending their positions.

Leuprecht reiterated key points in his year-end report, which was made public last month, in­cluding Hun Sen’s gathering pow­er, the “failed” land concession sys­tem, and continuing problems with impunity and corruption.

“What we are witnessing at present does not demonstrate pro­gress on the road to democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights,” he said, “but an increasingly autocratic form of government and growing concentration of pow­er in the hands of the prime min­is­ter behind a shaky facade of de­moc­racy.”

Leuprecht warned that the ma­jor­ity of Cambodians live near the poverty line, and “a growing number of people who have nothing to lose is a leaven of unrest in any society.”

The international community, he said, likes to hear good news and believes real progress is being made in Cambodia, but he said that is not the case right now, and the commission would have to act ac­­cordingly.

“Sometimes I felt there was some light at the end of the Cam­bo­dian tunnel, and I reported ac­cord­ingly,” Leuprecht said. “I re­gret to say that this time I have little good news to report.”

Ambassador Chheang Vun de­fend­ed the government’s actions, pointing to the large number of jour­nalists and NGOs working in Cambodia as positive signs of the government’s desire for change. He also pointed to the government’s committee on judicial and legal reform and the three elections since 1993 as signs that democracy is “alive and well” in Cambodia. Chheang Vun also accused Leu­precht of attacking the government instead of working with it to de­fend human rights.

The ambassador, who made head­lines in 1993 when he de­tained six Untac policemen for several hours after they entered his home without a search warrant to look for a stolen UN Land­cruiser, said it was unfortunate that Cambodia was not being al­lowed to shed its negative image.

But Leuprecht said his report does reflect reality and that he is not fighting the government. He added that if the government wanted to work on the issues, it would see what is happening on the ground, where the rights of average Cam­bodians continue to be violated.

Leuprecht said he sympathized with the Cambodian people who are still suffering, though not in a way comparable to the suffering they experienced during the Khmer Rouge re­gime.

Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development, said it is a popular government tactic to launch personal attacks against those who criticize the gov­ernment in an attempt to un­dermine their credibility, especially when it comes to human rights.

“They are always doing that,” she said Wednesday, adding that she has also been subjected to the tactic. “They are attacking the messenger. The government can always say the people are coming after a poor, developing country.”

A UN human rights representative said the commission would pass a resolution Wednesday or Thursday providing the government with recommendations on future actions to be taken to im­prove the human rights situation in the country. But, he said, the resolution is non-binding.

(Ad­ditional reporting by Pin Sisovann)


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