After Cambodia attracted international condemnation for deporting 20 ethnic Uighur asylum seekers back to China in December, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping arrived in Phnom Penh bearing $1.2 billion in interest-free loans.
On Wednesday Prime Minister Hun Sen told visiting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon that he would shutter the UN human rights office, another decision that drew international scrutiny.
Mr Hun Sen also told Mr Ban that the Khmer Rouge tribunal would cease operations after it concluded its second batch of cases due to commence early next year, raising fears about government influence in the court’s proceedings.
Then on Thursday, in the wake of the previous day’s declarations, Mr Hun Sen met with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Hanoi during which he reaffirmed the strong bilateral relations between the two countries, according to China’s official news service Xinhua.
Analysts say it is no coincidence that Cambodia appeared to be snuggling up to China as criticism over its human rights record mounted back home.
“China is not really a good example of a country that respects human rights,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, lead researcher for political and strategic affairs at the Asean Studies Center in Singapore. “Cambodia may find the comfort in its relations with China when it comes to human rights issue[s].”
Mr Chachavalpongpun noted that the government’s decision to shutter the UN’s human rights office would only harm Cambodia’s international standing as a country committed to upholding human rights.
“The ongoing [Khmer Rouge] trial has added [to] the country’s credibility, but the current episode – ridding the UN Office for human rights – could erase this good image,” he said. “In the Asean context, this could pose as another hurdle for the human rights commission to strengthen its works in the region.”
Qian Hai, spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh, declined to say whether or not China supported Cambodia’s decision to shut down the UN’s human rights office.
“It’s between Cambodia and the UN,” he said. “I think they can settle down the issue through their cooperation and dialogue.”
Analysts also point out that China’s own absence of separation between the executive power and the judiciary sits hand in hand with how Cambodia tends to run its system.
In the aftermath of Wednesday’s revelations, the UN’s deputy high commissioner for human rights Kang Kyung-wha met with staff from the UN’s human rights office in Cambodia yesterday, James Heenan, deputy representative for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia, wrote in an email.
She met with the UN country team, civil society and representatives of diplomatic missions and also had “very positive meetings” with the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior and Land Management, he said.
The UN Country Team declined to comment yesterday while government officials at the relevant ministries could not be reached.
Regarding matters linked to the closing of the office, Mr Heenan said: “The Secretary-General has stressed the value of the OHCHR Office in Phnom Penh and its essential public advocacy role. The Deputy High Commissioner subsequently held very positive meetings with the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior and Land Management. Upon her return to Geneva she will brief the High Commissioner for Human Rights.”
Yeng Virak, executive director of Community Legal Education Center, said he was present in the meeting with Ms Kang.
During yesterday’s meeting Mr Virak said that members of civil society talked about the continued scourge of land disputes across the country as well as the lack of an independent judiciary.
“It’s the mandate of the office to promote and protect human rights,” he said. “We still hope that the Cambodian people should benefit from the UN system and support.”
But Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, remained steadfast in the government’s position vis-à-vis the UN’s human rights office in Cambodia.
“They are supposed to be a government partner, not a policeman,” he said, declining to say which circumstances in particular had led the government to want to shut down the office.
“I do not want to talk openly about this,” he said. “We are committed to human rights. But we need a good partner, not a trouble maker.”