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Hun Sen threatens closure of UN rights office in Phnom Penh

Prime Minister Hun Sen has ordered United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to remove the head of the local UN human rights office, who he accused of acting as a “spokesman” for opposition groups.

Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, who attended a meeting between Hun Sen and Ban yesterday morning, said the premier “proposed” that Christophe Peschoux, the long-time head of the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, resign from his post.

“Regarding the issue of the UN human rights office in Phnom Penh, Samdech [Hun Sen] proposed the removal of Mr Christophe Peschoux, because Mr Peschoux is not a UN official working on human rights issues with the government, but is a spokesman for the opposition party,” he said after the meeting.

“If Mr Peschoux is not removed, then the UN human rights office in Phnom Penh will be closed.”

Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith clarified yesterday that the office would be closed regardless of whether Peschoux remained.

“Prime Minister Hun Sen requested the closure of the UN human rights office in Cambodia because other countries in the world don’t have human rights offices, and Cambodia doesn’t want this office either,” he said. Khieu Kanharith said one official from Ban’s entourage would remain in Cambodia for several days to discuss the removal of the office and its possible replacement with a single UN rights representative.

When contacted yesterday, Peschoux said he was not ready to comment on the situation. “For the time being we have nothing to say. We are discussing it internally,” he said.

A UN spokesman said yesterday that during his meeting with Hun Sen, Ban expressed appreciation for the government’s “cooperation with all human rights mechanisms” and “underlined the importance of creating political space for public debate”.

“He focused specifically on the essential public advocacy role of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights ... and stressed the notable role and value of its Office in Phnom Penh,” the statement said.

The comments came just days before United States secretary of state Hillary Clinton is due to arrive in Cambodia for a two-day visit.


Out of the blue

It was unclear whether any specific incident prompted Hun Sen’s comments, but they followed a series of outspoken government attacks on UN personnel.

In March, the UN country team was accused of “flagrantly interfering” in the government’s affairs by criticising the swift passage of anti-graft legislation. At the time, Hor Namhong threatened to expel Douglas Broderick, the UN resident coordinator, warning that the office had “exceeded the limit of its mandate”.

In June, Hun Sen accused Surya Subedi, the UN’s special rapporteur for human rights, of lacking “respect” after the envoy expressed his disappointment at the cancellation of a meeting. Peschoux came under fire the following month after he criticised the process by which two Thai antigovernment Red Shirts were deported.

The Foreign Ministry warned Peschoux that any further criticism would lead the government “to make a decision on your presence in Cambodia”.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch, said yesterday that the push to oust Peschoux was “a blatant attempt by Hun Sen to browbeat one of the most outspoken offices of the UN system”.

“What we see in this pattern is a descent into one-man authoritarian rule. Increasingly, Cambodia is starting to look more like Burma,” he said.

Peschoux, he added, had pursued his mandate “in good conscience”, and the UN should unite to shield him from Hun Sen’s attacks. “The UN secretary general and the UN country team need to close ranks behind Christophe Peschoux,” he said.

“If they allow one person to be treated and intimidated like this, then who’s next?”

John Coughlan, senior legal consultant for the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said the UN should not let the government accept its assistance on an “a la carte basis”, welcoming development aid while rejecting support on rights issues.

“The UN must take a principled approach and must not be bullied,” Coughlan said. “Similarly, major donors and trade partners should insist that their continued relationship with Cambodia is contingent on the extent to which the government respects human rights.”

Robertson said the issue had “raise[d] the bar” ahead of Clinton’s visit, and that she should make clear that the US is “not willing to countenance this kind of blustering intimidation of UN personnel”.

Sam Rainsy Party spokesman Yim Sovann said the treatment of Peschoux was part of a pattern dating back to the early 1990s, when a UN mission first helped establish Cambodia’s democratic system.

“The ruling party, especially the prime minister, has never accepted anybody from the UN, because everybody speaks the truth,” he said. “Anybody who has a different opinion from the government is accused of being a spokesman of the opposition. It is ridiculous.”

US embassy spokesman Mark Wenig said yesterday he was busy preparing for Clinton’s visit and could not comment. An Australian embassy spokeswoman also declined to comment, and French officials had not responded to an email as of press time.

Ban is in Cambodia for two days as part of a regional trip that will also take him to Thailand, Vietnam and China. Ahead of his arrival on Tuesday, several major roads were strung with banners reading “Long live the United Nations!”

He departs Cambodia this afternoon. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY JAMES O’TOOLE AND NETH PHEAKTRA

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