Cambodia must choose between embracing change or forcibly cracking down on discontent and facing the consequences, UN human rights envoy to Cambodia Surya Subedi warned yesterday.
Speaking before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Subedi said that the return to “old tactics that violate basic rights” in recent days after weeks of restraint by authorities makes it clear that the Kingdom stands at a critical juncture.
Hundreds of military police forced opposition party member Prince Sisowath Thomico to abandon a peaceful public hunger strike last week, while a candlelight vigil held by Boeung Kak and Borei Keila activists was attacked by police and thugs armed with slingshots and cattle prods.
Subedi made reference to those events and the death of one bystander and injuries to dozens of others at the hands of security forces last week on the first day of the opposition’s three-day protest.
“Every country that undergoes a transition to democracy faces a moment when the rules must change. Cambodia is facing such a moment now.”
“I regret to say that it seems yet to be understood in Cambodia that an inherent part of the democratisation process is for all people to be able to express their views freely and that the role of the state in peaceful demonstrations is to facilitate, not hinder, them.” Subedi said.
With official results showing that the populace was roughly split in half at the ballot box, Subedi said he deeply regretted the failure of the two parties to reach a compromise and “more so that the [National Assembly] opening proceeded” without Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmakers taking their 55 seats.
Subedi also criticised the post-election investigation process into alleged poll irregularities, which strictly adhered to only constitutionally mandated methods to deal with complaints – namely, the heavily criticised National Election Committee and Constitutional Council.
“Insistence on conformity with only the formal mechanics of democracy at the expense of fundamental human rights would be a negation of the very purpose of the constitution,” he said.
Speaking after Subedi at the session yesterday, a Cambodian representative whose name was not announced said the government appreciated Subedi’s work.
“We are fully aware that there is still much work to be done in spite of progress … as a cross-cutting issue, human rights requires constant attention. [It is] a continuous process of work … [and] Cambodia remains highly committed,” he said. He added that the recent election represented a “maturing” of Cambodian democracy.
“We also regret that there were a few unfortunate incidents that occurred … in the later stage,” he said.
While Subedi touched on some “encouraging developments” over the electoral period, he called for strong bipartisan reforms and urged for top-level dialogue between the two parties to continue.
Subedi was officially presenting his latest report, released in August, to the UN following two fact-finding missions to Cambodia in the past year.
His mandate as special rapporteur on human rights could end during this session of the human rights council if the body does not issue a resolution renewing it, rights groups have said.
The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), representing local rights groups Adhoc and Licadho, will speak at the council today.
FIDH will appeal for a strong resolution condemning rights violations in Cambodia and renewing Subedi’s mandate for two years, Nicolas Agostini, the FIDH delegate to the United Nations, said.
“There is a real risk that the mandate [will] be weakened to the ‘technical assistance’ level [rather than special rapporteur level], which means that the UN will be deprived of a strong monitoring capacity with regards to the human rights situation in Cambodia,” he said via email.
A resolution will be adopted on Friday.