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Faint praise from embassies for human rights report

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Yash Ghai, United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Cambodia, whose report to the United Nations was contradicted by the United States and won faint praise from other embassies and international donors.

A lukewarm reaction by embassies and international donors to a damning report by UN Special Rapporteur Yash Ghai on the state of human rights in Cambodia illustrates the international community's unwillingness to acknowledge reality, a local civil society representative says.

"La vérité blesse [Truth hurts]," said Kek Galabru, president of Licadho. "This is why Yash Ghai's report was not well received."

On September 26 Ghai, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Cambodia, presented a statement to the UN High Commission for Human Rights in Geneva in which he said human rights continued to be violated on a "systemic scale" in Cambodia.

His criticism was not confined to the government.

"With aid-giving comes the responsibility to ensure that it helps the people," his statement said. "The international community in Cambodia must give far higher priority to human rights and actively advocate for their implementation."

Many donors offered only muted support for Ghai's report, and America's representative at the UN High Commission for Human Rights, Warren Tichenor, implicitly rejected Ghai's damning assessment by responding that "the United States was encouraged by the improvements made in Cambodia."

Canada and Britain are among only a few donor countries that have expressed support for Ghai's statement.

Basil Fernando, director of the Asian Foundation for Human Rights, said the diverse responses serve to illustrate the lack of a concerted approach that has characterised the donor community's work in Cambodia since the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1993.

"Before the Paris agreements there was a long period when the international community was in agreement that Cambodia needed peace and they acted in a concerted way," he said. "But thereafter there is no common idea or plan; donors don't want to reckon with the fact there is still no rule of law."

Theary Sing, director of the Center for Social Development (CSD), said the international community is fragmented and guided by individual interests.

"The donor community is not monolithic, nor does it possess a collective voice," she said. "Varying national interests inform the policy of donor assistance."

Galabru said that despite their nominal commitment to improving Cambodia's rights record, the donor and international community often find their capacity to act curtailed.

"It is difficult for embassies, especially if they want good relations with the government and want to raise the issue of human rights," she said. "But they need to find a way to prioritise the human rights issue."

The scale of donor assistence to Cambodia gives them considerable leverage over the country's development trajectory, but they are failing to use it effectively, Galabru said.

"Half of Cambodia's national budget for the last 13 years has been provided by donors," she said. "We should have a common policy to ensure that we are more effective."

The lack of progress indicates that donor money is not being well spent, she said.

"Maybe too much has been spent on consultants, policy, workshops, conferences and not enough on implementation on the ground. We don't want the international community to stop aid, but we want it to be more effective."

Fernando said Ghai's report highlights this lack of effective progress, which is why it has met with such lukewarm support from the donor community.

"Donors don't want to reckon with the fact there is still no rule of law in Cambodia," he said. "I am not surprised people may not support Ghai, as he is telling an unpleasant truth which is being ignored."

Kem Sokha, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), said that while Cambodian democracy is still in its infancy, donors have a key role to play in nurturing it's development.

"It is the responsibility of the donor community to act as a check and balance [on the Cambodian government]," he said. "Otherwise there can be no justice in Cambodia, and that compromises the dignity of the Cambodian people."

Previous attempts by donors to focus on institution building have not been successful due to foot dragging by the Cambodian government, Sokha said.

"Some donors do focus on the reform of institutions," he said. "But nothing has come of it - improvement in institutions depends on political will."

Fernando said donors have long been aware of the lack of political will to develop the rule of law, and rather than seeking to challenge it, they have turned a blind eye as the situation on the ground has deterioriated.

"We have reached a point of no return," he said. "Every safeguard has been broken, when you go to the extent that a person cannot hold a little piece of land with security. Donors know the scale of the land issue but everyone is conveniently silent."

The donor community's lack of support for Ghai's report is a continuation of this pragmatic yet unproductive approach, Fernando said.

"If they are honest they would give more attention to Ghai's report and take it up as a landmark point of departure," he said. "What is the point of having a UN Special Rapporteur, carrying out studies, making recommendations, if everything then goes on as if nothing has happened?"

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