SERIOUS shortcomings in the Cambodian judicial system have impeded its ability to provide justice for “ordinary people”, the UN’s human rights envoy said at the tail end of his third official mission to the country.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Surya Subedi, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights, said a lack of resources, institutional shortcomings and external interference have resulted in an institution that “does not command the confidence of people from many walks of life”.
“There are an alarmingly high number of people in detention due to various shortcomings in the criminal justice system, and the instances of miscarriage of justice are far too numerous,” he said.
This is especially true when it comes to land rights and freedom of expression, Subedi said. “I am troubled by the impact of land disputes, land concessions and resettlements on the lives of ordinary people ... and the narrowing of political space for critical debate in society due to the disproportionate use of defamation, disinformation and incitement lawsuits against journalists, human rights activists and political opponents,” he added.
During his 10-day visit, which focused on the judiciary, Subedi met with King Norodom Sihamoni, senior officials, judges, civil society members and political party representatives. But a meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen, scheduled for Thursday morning, was cancelled due to “health reasons”, Subedi said.
Individuals have also petitioned Subedi directly, calling for him to intervene in their cases. On Monday, he met briefly with representatives of villagers involved in land disputes across the country.
The following day, jailed journalist Ros Sokhet wrote to Subedi to request his intervention in his case. Ros Sokhet was jailed for two years in November after being convicted of disinformation after sending disparaging text messages to news anchor Soy Sopheap.
Subedi said his position did not allow him to entertain individual complaints, but that the personal encounters had demonstrated “a certain pattern” in the operation of the judiciary in Cambodia.
“They are very helpful for me to ascertain the need for reform and what other areas are candidates for reform,” he said.
He added that he is calling on the government to establish a “strict timetable” for the implementation of his recommendations about the judicial system.
“This is an obligation voluntarily undertaken by the government of Cambodia, and I’m expecting them to honour their commitments,” he said. Subedi will report the findings of his trip to the UN Human Rights Council in September.
Om Yentieng, head of the government-run Cambodian Human Rights Committee, said he did not know what Subedi would report to the council, but that his visit had been too short to make a fair evaluation.
“In order to have a fair report they should establish a coalition team to work with the government so that they will have more details and information before making an evaluation,” he said.
Sam Rainsy Party spokesman Yim Sovann said the party had given Subedi recommendations concerning the alleged political bias of the courts, especially related to legal cases being pursued against SRP president Sam Rainsy and lawmaker Mu Sochua. He added, however, that it was uncertain whether positive change would result from Subedi’s visit. “So far, I have less confidence, but we will wait and see,” he said.