UN Rights Envoy to Make First Official Visit

More than five months after being appointed as the U.N.’s new special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, Rhona Smith will make her first official visit to the country later this month, according to the government’s Human Rights Committee.

The trip would conclude a week before Ms. Smith is scheduled to give her first report on the situation in Cambodia to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on September 30. 

A British academic who spent time teaching and researching in Cambodia before her appointment in March, Ms. Smith initially planned to make her first official visit to the country in May, but that trip was delayed with little explanation. The U.N. said it has been waiting for the government to confirm plans for a rescheduled mission.

On Friday, Mak Sambath, deputy chairman of the government’s Human Rights Committee, said that Ms. Smith would begin her first visit as the U.N.’s human rights envoy on September 17.

“I have received information from the United Nation’s Human Rights Council that Rhona Smith, who was scheduled to arrive in Cambodia in May, will be coming to Cambodia from the 17th until the 24th of September,” he said.

“It’s a bit strange she’s coming in September because the special rapporteur never comes in September because it’s meeting season in Geneva.”

Ms. Smith has requested to meet with government officials including Prime Minister Hun Sen, Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong, Interior Minister Sar Kheng, Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron and Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana during her maiden mission, according to Mr. Sambath.

“A number of leaders agreed to meet her and some also arranged their schedule to meet her,” he said.

Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry said that officials at his ministry were arranging the trip, but said he could not confirm details of the visit.

The U.N.’s human rights office in Cambodia also said it could not confirm the dates of the visit.

“The Special Rapporteur has proposed a visit in September and awaits confirmation from the Government,” Wan-Hea Lee, country representative for the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in an email.

“As each Special Rapporteur faces competing demands, the dates chosen by each for a visit might well differ,” she added in a separate email. “There is nothing unusual about this.”

Ms. Smith’s planned visit would come during what human rights groups have called a “deteriorating human rights situation in Cambodia.”

Last month, a group of 12 local and international human rights groups sent a letter to the U.N. Human Rights Council calling for its members to pass a resolution addressing increasing rights abuses in the country during a session beginning September 14.

“In the runup to local and national elections scheduled for 2017 and 2018, the Cambodian Government…has taken steps to further restrict Cambodian citizens’ rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, and to limit the political opposition’s ability to meaningfully engage in policymaking,” the letter said.

Naly Pilorge, director of local rights group Licadho, said on Friday that she hoped Ms. Smith would address the recently passed and highly controversial NGO law during her trip, and also take the time to meet with recently jailed activists.

“We are not key people to decide on her agenda, but we hope she will focus on restrictive democratic space for human rights defenders post NGO law and visit human rights defenders in Phnom Penh and Koh Kong prisons,” Ms. Pilorge said.

Apart from passing the NGO law, which human rights groups have said is an unconstitutional tool for the government to suppress dissent and shut down organizations critical of the ruling party, there has also been a recent spike in legal action against social and political activists.

Last month, the Koh Kong Provincial Court imprisoned three activists from the environmental NGO Mother Nature who had been leading protests there against companies they said were illegally dredging sand from a local estuary.

Ny Chakrya, the head of monitoring for rights group Adhoc, has been the target of numerous legal threats for his efforts to expose what he claims were judicial irregularities in the handling of a land dispute in Siem Reap province, which saw two farmers jailed.

And the opposition CNRP has seen 15 of its officials and supporters either arrested or convicted in the past two months—11 of them sentenced to prison for between 7 and 20 years on charges of insurrection that are widely seen as being politically driven.

Although the government is generally dismissive of reports and recommendations from the U.N.’s human rights envoy, Huon Chun­dy, acting director of the Commun­i­ty Legal Education Center, said the position remained an important way to highlight ongoing abuses on an international stage.

“Usually, the government does not easily accept the human rights report,” he said.

“However, I still think it will contribute somehow to the consideration of the government to justify their current actions against the human rights defenders, against their own people, against peaceful protesters, and also the rights of those arrested for their views, including those in the opposition party.”

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