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Cambodia confronts UN panel

Free speech, land rights high on list of Western concerns.

LAND rights and freedom of expression dominated discussions as Cambodia came before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva for its formal rights review on Tuesday.

During a three-hour session, the Council’s 47 members questioned Cambodia on rights-related issues after the presentation of a government report by Sun Suon, Cambodia’s ambassador to the UN.

“Cambodia fully shares the view that all human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent,” Sun Suon told the Council, adding that rights promotion should take into account the “historical, political, economic, social and cultural reality of the country and its particularities”.

But in their questions to the Cambodian delegation, several Western nations highlighted the issue of freedom of expression, brought into question after a string of lawsuits against critics of the government.

“We note a number of concerns with regard to the use of justice in order to limit freedom of expression and political freedom,” said John Von Kaufman, representing Canada.

The German delegation pointed to reports of “the intimidation of human rights defenders, NGOs, the media and even in some cases, the lifting of the immunity of parliamentarians”.

“Germany would like to know how the government reconciles such restrictive approaches … with its obligations it entered into when it ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” said German delegate Michael Klepsch.

Lina Van Der Weyden, representing Sweden, also expressed concern about increased reports of forced evictions resulting from “legally doubtful land concessions”, calling for a moratorium on evictions until the necessary “safeguards” are in place.

Other delegations, however, diverged sharply from the criticisms of Western governments. The Indian delegation, led by Gopinathan Achamkulangare, acknowledged the “challenges and constraints” faced by nations after decades of conflict, and said it “appreciates the prioritising of poverty reduction by the government in its efforts to promote human rights through the National Strategic Development Plan”.

Kyam Myo Htut from Myanmar said he was “delighted to hear of the major achievements which came in the implementation of [government development] strategies”.

When asked whether the presence of known rights abusers – including Myanmar, Russia, China and Vietnam – on the council marred the universal periodic review process, rights defenders said its composition gave little measure of its credibility and performance.

“The most important thing is its own mandate, which is comprehensive and far reaching,” Surya Subedi, the UN special rapporteur on human rights to Cambodia, said by email.

“The UPR is a relatively new mechanism, but it already has delivered some positive results for people around the globe.”

Christophe Peschoux, director of the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia, said improvements in the rights situation are largely contingent on the government’s actions.

“It’s not just a one-off exercise – the UPR is one moment in a process,” he said. “But what matters more is the extent to which the government takes the [council’s] recommendations into account.”

The results from Tuesday’s session will go towards shaping an outcome document that is set to be adopted by the council today.

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