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)