UNITED Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon touched down in Cambodia yesterday evening for a two-day visit amid calls to raise local rights issues in talks with government officials.
During his time in Cambodia – part of a regional tour that also included Thailand, Vietnam and China – Ban is set to hold official talks with Prime Minister Hun Sen and pay a courtesy call to King Norodom Sihamoni.
Ban is to be welcomed at a ceremony at the prime minister’s new offices near the Council of Ministers this morning, followed by a visit to the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal, where he will meet and talk with court staff members.
He will depart for Vietnam tomorrow after visits to the Cambodian-Russian Friendship Hospital and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, described Ban’s visit as a “high-profile” honour for Cambodia, one that cemented the country’s sovereign status and its “equal partnership” with the UN.
But Ban’s arrival comes amid requests from local and international groups that he publicly address controversial human rights issues during his visit.
On Monday, Human Rights Watch said Cambodia had “continue[d] its precipitous decline” and called on Ban to address the country’s “deeply entrenched impunity”.
In an open letter to the UN head, it noted the lack of judicial independence – illustrated by the 10-year jail term handed down against opposition leader Sam Rainsy last month – and land-grabbing as key issues that should be raised with the government.
HRW’s letter also pressed him to convey concerns about political interference at the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal, as well as the “arbitrary arrest and detention” of alleged drug users, sex workers and homeless people.
When contacted yesterday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong dismissed the letter from HRW.
“I have not seen the report, but previously we have never given any value to this organisation,” he said.
The visit has also prompted a series of petitions from local groups, including the opposition Sam Rainsy Party and representatives of Phnom Penh residents facing eviction.
Yesterday, police prevented the Cambodian Confederation of Unions from holding a rally ahead of Ban’s arrival, according to group President Rong Chhun.
He said the protest, set to take place outside the old National Assembly building, had to be cancelled after Sothearos Boulevard was blocked to traffic and police were deployed.
Rong Chhun said the group will now try to meet with Ban at some point during his visit in order to hand him a petition containing allegations of breaches of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement and criticisms of a border treaty signed with Vietnam in 2005.
“We think that it is a rare occurrence and our poor country is lucky that Excellency Ban Ki-moon will be present, so we must raise all our problems with him so that he can help intervene over the abuse of the Constitution,” he said.
Phnom Penh police chief Touch Naruth said the rally was blocked because the CCU had not been granted the necessary permission.
“If he has permission to gather, I will defend him, but if he does not have [permission] I will not allow it,” he said. He also said he would not allow the CCU to “disturb” Ban Ki-moon’s visit, recommending that the petition instead be delivered to the local UN office.
Phay Siphan said it was unnecessary for people to hand petitions to the secretary general, since Cambodia already had the necessary mechanisms to resolve local concerns. The Cambodian Constitution also prevented any outside power from “put[ting] their noses” into the country’s affairs, he said.
He added that the government respected free speech rights. “Everyone has the right to challenge with a high-ranking international official,” he said, so long as they “respect the rule of law”.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SEBASTIAN STRANGIO