A LIGHT MOMENT...
shared by Prime Minister Hun Sen and Assembly President Norodom Ranariddh
on Rights Day.
© Heng Sinith
Only two months ago, National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh's supporters
were being beaten, shot, arrested and even killed by police for demonstrating against
Prime Minister Hun Sen.
But on Dec 10 the two met under a UN flag and made smiling speeches about human rights.
Those who attended acknowledged that it was appropriate for the 50th anniversary
party of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to include top government officials.
But many regretted the lack of constructive discussions of Cambodia's rights situation.
"Such an occasion needs to be a cause for some substantial reflection... that
there are substantial local problems," said an attendee from the diplomatic
Hun Sen spoke of human rights in general terms: "We are in need of human rights
and we are struggling until our goal is reached, i.e. no one is suffering from...
violation by power, racism, etc."
Ranariddh, who was out of the country in fear for his life for a large part of the
year - a year in which many of his supporters were murdered and he himself tried
for treason and convicted in absentia - was muted in his comments on the rights situation:
"We in Cambodia need to work harder."
Several Westerners at the ceremony muttered that the UN agencies here - the event
was co-sponsored by the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative, the Cambodia
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the United Nations Development
Fund - should also be working harder on demanding improvements.
One opposition MP, while agreeing more could be done, said the final push has to
come from Cambodians themselves.
"[UN Special Representative] Mehrotra is too diplomatic. He does not stand up
for truth and justice... [but] the UN can only do things if there is some kind of
positive response from the Cambodian government," said Son Chhay of the Sam
The government - in the form of the dozens of Ministers and State Secretaries attending
Human Rights Day - declined to watch a UN video on human rights following the speeches.
Only opposition leader Sam Rainsy remained to watch the film, which included footage
shot in Cambodia.
The COHCHR has documented scores of cases of politically-suspect violence this year,
often implicating Hun Sen's security apparatus. But the government has failed to
act upon the information. "No progress was made during the year toward ending
impunity for rights violations; officials linked to murders and ëdisappearances'
remained in office," says Human Rights Watch 1998 report on Cambodia.
Several local rights workers say they are frustrated not only by the government's
lack of action but also by what they say is the softening attitude of the UN's rights
envoy here, Thomas Hammarberg.
"If you look at his statements compared to a year ago, they are much more accommodating
[towards the government]," said one rights worker.
"He's kept a lower profile lately, less outspoken," agreed another.
But Son Chhay, for one, believes that Hammarberg is the wrong target for criticism.
"From the beginning everybody knows that Hammarberg was very outspoken, he does
all he can, but come to the end of the day, Cambodian people need to do it themselves
too," he said. "Look at Funcinpec. They do not stand up for their own people,
but [they] ask Hammarberg to."
"I'm not blaming Hammar-berg, I feel sorry for him. He tried his best... does
Ranariddh mention [murdered loyalist] Ho Sok anymore? Why should Hammar-berg mention
Ho Sok if Ranariddh does not?"
Still, many believe that Ham-marberg's last visit here, in October, focused too much
on the positives - his attempts to get a UN tribunal for the Khmer Rouge underway,
at the expense of the negatives - a report on deaths and other rights violations
during September's demonstrations.
"He has to maintain relationships with the authorities and the international
community, but having said that, the overriding focus on the KR in his first visit
after elections was regrettable," said a diplomatic source.
Some rights workers and diplomats say privately that Ham-marberg's agenda may present
a conflict - that it is difficult for him to slam the government for continuing impunity
issues while soliciting support for a KR trial.
Hammarberg dismissed such concerns, asserting that he is still "very much"
concerned about impunity, including the September deaths.
"We are pursuing the cases [in the report]," he said by email. "The
identity of one of the bodies mentioned in our 28 October memorandum has been established
as one of those who took part in the demonstrations and then disappeared."
But given the extensive work of the COHCHR documenting political violence before,
during and after the July election, some activists are bitter that Ham-marberg did
not issue a post-poll statement on the human rights climate.
Hammarberg's written statements, along with the seven COHCHR electoral-violence reports,
do criticize the rights climate, however - and address several points which UN Secretary-General
Kofi Annan had flagged before the polls as necessary for free elections, including
intimidation and media access.
Noting the "many well-documented complaints of intimidation", Hammarberg
wrote in his Sep 17 report to the UN General Assembly: "In some districts and
communes opposition party members were unable to operate at all because of threats
or fears of violence.
"Both before and during the electoral period, equal or equitable access to the
broadcast media did not exist in Cambodia," he said.
Despite Hammarberg's comments and the Center's reports, the UN - which had no direct
part in the election, instead only to coordinating the Joint International Observers
Group (JIOG) - did not follow up on them.
A diplomatic source noted that Hammarberg was in a tricky position during the election.
"It's a difficult job being the UN representative during an election where the
UN had no role... how the Center's reports were treated by JIOG is reflective of
[JIOG's] position on human rights."
Although the COHCHR's election monitoring team's mandate has ended, director Rosemary
McCreery said monitoring will continue, with one more staff member than before elections.
"Our monitoring unit has been more active this year than it ever has before,"
she said, noting the office released a May memo detailing violations after last July's
coup; brought in two experts to review government investigations of politically suspect
cases; produced seven electoral reports, two on media access, and six statements
during September's demonstrations. Those reports detail at least 80 killings - and
no convictions have been forthcoming.
"Our mandates will continue for some more time and monitoring of the human rights
situation is part of that mandate," Ham-marberg said of the office and himself.
Yet local observers worry that the office may be aligning itself too closely with
the government since an Oct 30 memo signed by Hammarberg and Cambodian Human Rights
Commission chair Om Yien Tieng.
The memo agreed that the CHRC would be the focal point for November's visit of UN
experts concerning a KR trial; that the UN will send two experts to help review the
legal system and investigations; and that the CHRC and COHCHR "will continue
to cooperate to ensure the successful implementation of the initiatives mentioned
While noting that the language of the memo is not strong, observers question why
it was necessary at all. "It was cementing a UN relationship with an institution
that is deeply suspect," said a diplomatic source.
Local rights workers voice concern on the inaction of the CPP-friendly CHRC (Yien
Tieng was a top adviser to Hun Sen) and the fact that the new National Assembly human
rights commission is also chaired by the CPP - since the CPP-dominated government
has failed miserably in investigating cases of political violence against opposition
A Human Rights Watch representative agreed. "We remain skeptical because many
of the key players are the same as those in the previous coalition government, under
which there were many human rights violations. We will be monitoring the new government's
track record on human rights very closely."
The opposition Sam Rainsy Party warned in a Dec 9 statement that the international
community should condition their support of Cambodia "on actual progress in
respect for human rights, not promises, not pledges, not committees and conferences,
but prosecution of human rights violators from the bottom ranks to the top".