UN Rights Envoy Says Democracy Is Limited in Cambodia

Cambodia is falling short of the full liberal democracy enshrined in its Constitution, the government is becoming increasingly intolerant to constructive criticism and judicial, parliamentary and electoral reforms have been slow to take effect, according to U.N. human rights envoy Surya Subedi’s latest report on Cambodia.

The wide-ranging report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, which is dated Au­gust 5 but was drafted prior to the July 28 election, follows his eighth mission to the country in Decem­ber 2012, during which he was snubbed by members of the government, and his ninth mission in May, parts of which Mr. Subedi described as being “unpleasant.”

This, his fifth report since taking up the post in March 2009, wraps up the findings to all of his previous fact-finding missions, which focused on judiciary, parliamentary and electoral reforms and the country’s policies regarding economic land concessions.

“The reception that the Special Rapporteur received from the Government during his mission to the country in December 2012 was a frosty one during which no senior member of the Government was available to meet with him,” Mr. Subedi said in his report, referring to himself in the third person.

“In the wake of the publication of two major reports by the Special Rapporteur—one on electoral reform and the other one on economic and other land concessions—he was subjected to some raw remarks descending to the personal level.

“This was highly regrettable, as the focus of the dialogue between the Special Rapporteur and the Government should remain strictly on the substance of the work he is mandated to carry out by the United Nations, and not on him as a person.”

Mr. Subedi appeared to be referring to remarks made by Om Yentieng, president of the government’s Cambodian Hu­man Rights Committee, in September last year that accused Mr. Subedi of working for the opposition. The following month, Prime Minister Hun Sen said during a speech at a graduation ceremony that Mr. Subedi’s reports were “flimsy” and that he was “sorry” the rapporteur had felt the need to make such reports.

Such treatment echoed that meted out to his predecessors.

Kenyan law professor Yash Ghai endured a litany of verbal abuse from government officials, particularly Mr. Hun Sen, over the course of his three-year term as special rapporteur, and he resigned in 2008, citing a lack of support from the U.N.

Mr. Ghai’s predecessor, Aus­trian law professor Peter Leuprecht, stepped down after five years and many spats with the government.

After being snubbed by the government in December 2012, Mr. Subedi said in his latest report that “the missed opportunity for dialogue with the Government is a significant one.”

Although Mr. Subedi was able to meet with key government figures when he returned in May, the mission was again blighted by unfavorable remarks from officials, allegations of a media ban on his activities and a student protest at a lecture he was delivering about investment that was organized by one of the ruling CPP’s youth movements and called for him to end his mandate to monitor human rights in the country.

“[T]he Special Rapporteur re­grets that he was subjected to some unpleasant incidents during the mission,” his report says.

“If the media reports are to be believed, these were staged protests designed to intimidate and harass the Special Rapporteur in order to distract him from his focus on substantive issues. He was also subjected to baseless allegations of bias against the Govern­ment,” it says, adding that “the experience was unpleasant.”

However, Mr. Subedi said the incidents had only strengthened his resolve and that he felt encouraged by messages of support for his mandate.

In his report, Mr. Subedi said he was also encouraged by the March release of Beehive radio station owner Mam Sonando from prison, after he was sentenced to 20 years in jail for fomenting a secessionist movement on charg­es that many be­lieved were trumped up.

He also welcomed a decision made in mid-July to allow opposition leader Sam Rainsy to return to Cambodia to participate in campaigning for the opposition CNRP ahead of the national election.

However, he said, “Cambodia still has some way to go in promoting and protecting human rights, strengthening good governance, enhancing the independence and capacity of State institutions responsible for upholding people’s rights.”

Mr. Subedi said that while the government had acknowledged these issues—something he saw as a “sign of progress”—there are still strides that must be made to ensure that the full democratization of Cambodia can be realized.

“While the Constitution of Cam­bodia speaks of a liberal democracy, in reality the situation is akin to a limited democracy in many respects,” he said.

“While the process of judicial, parliamentary and electoral reform has been slow, the Gov­ern­ment is yet to act on most of the recommendations relating to the granting and management of economic and other land concessions.”

In his recommendations, Mr. Subedi honed in on the government’s ability to listen to constructive criticism, which he said is decreasing.

“For democracy to function properly in Cambodia and for the democratic culture to take root in society, those holding public positions must be willing to acknowledge shortcomings, for only then can solutions be found that are acceptable to all,” he said.

“This realization does not yet seem to be prevalent in contemporary Cambodian society. As the Special Rapporteur has stated elsewhere, criticism is not a crime but an exercise of freedom of conscience, an act of intelligence.

“These are inherent attributes of democracy. Their absence is one of the reasons why Cambodia falls short of the full liberal democracy envisaged in the Con­stitution of the country.”

He added that the government needs to implement constitutionally mandated laws on the governance of the judiciary in order to put it on the path to independence, while “appropriate measures should be taken to enhance the independence and capacity of the National Election Committee [NEC] to enable it to command the full trust and confidence of the entire electorate within the country in future elections.”

Mr. Subedi has said previously that a failure to implement proper reforms of the NEC would shake the confidence of the electorate and could lead to violence.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said he agreed with Mr. Subedi’s assessment that Cambodia’s democracy is limited, but said, “I think that everyone who understands that with de­mocracy in this world, no one has the best one on Earth.”

“[Mr. Subedi] is here to be a partner, not a policeman,” Mr. Siphan said. “He is not a professor on Cambodia. He is here to help Cambodia toward what everyone wants Cambodia to be.

“Of course they say Cambodia’s democracy is limited—I agree. That’s why we need to partner together to improve that. Everyone is looking for stability and peace after the war.”

As for how the relationship be­tween the government and Mr. Subedi would move forward, Mr. Siphan said, “we believe he has to build trust and confidence between himself and Cambodia and be together.”

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