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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - International observers' report 'too political'

International observers' report 'too political'

THE LEAD foreign group judging the Cambodian election quashed the first report from

its own observers at a meeting June 29 because it was "too political and based

too much on human rights," according to documents obtained by the Post.

The Joint International Observation Group (JIOG) also decided that was not the correct

forum - at that time - to discuss electoral problems such as widespread intimidation

with Cambodian authorities.

JIOG demanded the report be rewritten to contain "only technical data",

the documents reveal, and also that all future observers' reports be purely technical.

The problem, according to some of those involved, was procedural.

Foreign ambassadors who sit on the JIOG were surprised to be given suggestions to

talk with the government when all they thought they were going to get was a technical

report. The foreign ambassadors prompted the rewrite, sources said, adding that French

Ambassador Gildas Le Lidec was particularly critical.

JIOG - a grouping of 34 foreign observer missions - will make what should amount

to the most comprehensive foreign judgment of the election. Its members include the

heads of the European Union (EU), ASEAN and bilateral observer missions.

The eight-page report, presented to JIOG by the UN Electoral Assistance Secretariat

(EAS) - the body coordinating the observation missions - was written by 56 observers

from the United States, Australia, Canada and the EU. It also contained information

from teams working with the UN secretary-general's special representative and the

UN Center for Human Rights.

The Post has obtained copies of the report and minutes of the JIOG meeting.

The report was "innocuous enough... with little more [information] that you

could get from the Post, The Cambodia Daily and the wires," said one source.

It was also highly critical of Second Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's

Party (CPP).

The observers' report blamed CPP officials for intimidating voters and opposition

parties and stacking electoral commissions - issues that affected voters' perception

of ballot secrecy.

It also contained information on voter education, access to media, freedom of speech

and assembly and technical preparation for the polls. The report suggested that JIOG:

ï "might wish to express its concern to the National Election Committee (NEC)"

about intimidation that threatens the perception of ballot secrecy;

- "might consider" asking the NEC to broadcast on radio that the ballot

is secret and that it is against the law for anyone to try to find out how a person


- "might consider requesting" that the NEC tell broadcasters to ensure

fair media access for all parties;

- "might wish to ascertain from the NEC whether elections can be held technically

on July 26" or not.

Witnesses say that Ambassador Le Lidec "exploded" after glancing through

the report and began arguing that the EAS had no right to include information from

the UN.

Le Lidec and US Ambassador Kenneth Quinn said that it was not the observers' job

to suggest recommendations the JIOG might make to the government.

The minutes of the meeting leaked to the Post describe the scene: "Some delegations

expressed surprise at such a report and felt that it was not in the EAS mandate to

provide political analysis of the electoral process. The content of the report was

too political and based too much on human rights issues. Other delegations felt that

information sharing was important."

The report was finally quashed and JIOG decided:

- not to discuss problems with the NEC or the government before the election;

- and to modify future observer reports to contain "only technical data... for

internal information sharing".

Critics say that an election is by definition both "political" and a "human

right", and are baffled how JIOG will be able to judge the process by insisting

its observers furnish it only with technical data.

Sources told the Post that because the minutes of the meeting were later disapproved

by JIOG as inaccurate and misleading, a decision was made not to take any minutes

of future meetings. Instead there will only be a chairman's summary.

Although EU observer chief Sven Linder is also chairman of the JIOG, he was not present

at the meeting to chair the debate.

The EAS report has been re-written and circulated to JIOG members. It now carries

no suggestions or recommendations, nor does it include any information from UN rights

teams - information that the June 29 JIOG meeting strongly objected to.

One source said the new report was "bland", although it still contained

some critique of human rights issues "because even JIOG observers can't help

but notice and report what's going on".

JIOG has a UN mandate to make "private démarches" to the NEC and the

Cambodian government to help give "a collective assessment" of the electoral

process, including recommendations on how it could be improved.

The UN mandate also allows JIOG to go public with its findings. JIOG has decided

to make one public statement before polling day and a final one after, thereby honoring

its UN mandate, but critics are not satisfied.

They say JIOG was wrong to have ditched the option to talk to the NEC and the government,

and that it was a decision its ambassador members should not have been allowed to


One UN official, who would not be named, said JIOG had proved itself flawed. "Does

it think things are so good here that it doesn't need to talk to the government?"

he said. "Has it found nothing it wants to bring up with the NEC?"

A senior donor official indicated to the Post that because of the "fluid"

nature of JIOG's membership it could at any time decide to ignore the June 29 decision

and go ahead with representations to the Cambodian government.

Some sources said that Le Lidec, Quinn and other ambassadors such as George Edgar

(UK) - who had all been invited to attend JIOG meetings - had been put in a situation

where they could not accept the report, as representatives of their governments,

without instruction.

The ambassadors were only attending JIOG because the chiefs of their countries' short-term

observer missions had not yet arrived in Cambodia, said one source.

He said that if JIOG's "temporary" ambassadorial members had acted on the

report's recommendations it would have been "a sure way" of tainting the


Ambassadors could best make government representations through a group like "Friends

of Cambodia", not JIOG, he said. When chiefs of observer missions arrived to

take up JIOG positions instead of their ambassadors "then the JIOG can make

all the démarches to the government it wants," he said.

A spokesman for the US Embassy said that Quinn already made a similar point at the


Another source said that "if [it is being implied] that the JIOG is not concerned

about human rights then that's wrong. It certainly is [concerned]. The decisions

were just a procedural thing".

But one critic privy to the meeting said that Le Lidec, Quinn and Edgar, among others,

should have excused themselves from the meeting once they saw the report and felt

that they were compromised to accept it. Instead, Le Lidec began arguing and driving

decisions on behalf of JIOG that, under new membership, the group may later have

to alter.

The United States is now only nominally part of the group. On July 9 it announced

it would not be associated with JIOG's judgment of the election. Diplomats say the

US - which from Washington at least has been a critic of Cambodia's political climate

over the past year - is worried that JIOG's statement has been predetermined as favorable,

and that the US wants the right to make its own call.

The results of JIOG's June 29 meeting may only strengthen that perception, say critics.



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