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Human rights ‘deteriorating’: UN rapporteur

UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith speaks to the press yesterday in Phnom Penh.
UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith speaks to the press yesterday in Phnom Penh. Pha Lina

Human rights ‘deteriorating’: UN rapporteur

The UN special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia yesterday described a political situation that is “deteriorating” in the lead up to the 2017 and 2018 elections, though one that hadn’t reached the “dangerous tipping point” she warned of late last year.

Rhona Smith, who concluded her 10-day visit to the country with a press conference, said there’s concern that the law in the Kingdom is being used as a “political tool rather than a legal tool prosecuting justice”, and called for its fair and equal application to all political parties to ensure protection of democratic space.

Smith, a professor of international human rights at Northumbria University in the United Kingdom, said she’s fully aware of the raft of current court cases involving members of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, which are widely believed to be politically motivated.

“A variety of different laws have been used in order to arrest or charge or detain members of the opposition party, who are members of the National Assembly, and of the Senate,” she told the Post in an interview. She added that more needs “to be done to demonstrate that the judiciary is applying the law in a fair and consistent manner, and independent of all branches of government, definitely”.

Smith, who was appointed to her post in March 2015, met with several ministries, members of the National Assembly, stakeholders and members of civil society during her visit. However, a meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen was not permitted.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said yesterday the prime minister, who has had an at-times tempestuous relationship with past rapporteurs, wasn’t trying to avoid her, he just wasn’t available. “I think what’s most important is that a number of ministries met with her,” he said.

Siphan acknowledged that there are areas that could improve, one of them being the judiciary. But he insisted that the court cases currently faced by the opposition were free of political influence. “They are provocative,” he said. “They are rebellious.”

At her press conference, Smith provided a summary of her visit’s findings, saying she’s particularly concerned about the prevalence of violence against women who often face barriers when their “perpetrators should be brought swiftly to justice”.

She also touched on attempts being made to protect and preserve the traditional cultures of indigenous people, saying that several ministries cited challenges in protecting minority rights in accordance with international standards.

Her full recommendations for the government will be included in her report to the Human Rights Council, which will meet in September.

Siphan said the government would welcome and review her recommendations, to a point. “Only the government knows what’s best to do,” he said. “She doesn’t have the power to order us.”

Smith told the Post she was undaunted by the possibility the government may treat her similarly to some of her predecessors, who were personally attacked for their blunt criticism.

“You are not appointed to be friends with anyone,” she said. “You are appointed to be an independent expert, reviewing and commenting on the human rights situation as you see it, and that will mean saying things that may be unpalatable to any stakeholder, including, but not least, the state.”

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