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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Kingdom's rights committee stymied by politics

Kingdom's rights committee stymied by politics

A YEAR after it was set up the by the government, the Cambodian Human Rights Committee

has refused to acknowledge any politically motivated human rights abuses.

Nor has its work lead to any arrests or prosecutions for human rights abuses of any

kind.

Independent human rights workers point to this lack of action as a sign of the Government's

unwillingness to address the issue.

"No one is being fooled any longer either within or outside Cambodia,"

said a longtime human rights worker. "The lack of political will has been ongoing

too long. . . in fact, this committee even makes it more visible that there's no

political will to address human rights concerns, particularly impunity."

CHRC member Ouk Vannarith said he could not name a case where the Committee's work

has led to arrest or prosecution. Asked to confirm that the CHRC has never reported

or acknowledged a single definite rights violation, Vannarith replied: "I accept

your criticism."

Local rights activists have long claimed the CHRC lacks the will to work on political

cases because the members are too closely tied to the government.

"It's not independent, that's very clear," said the rights worker, noting

that the four members are all advisers to top government officials. "Certainly

the Committee reflects the political environment of the country."

CHRC president Om Yen Tieng, who failed to appear for an interview for this article,

is a top adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen. Vannarith and Sandy de Montero - who

has stopped coming to work, though he has yet to officially resign - advised former

Prime Minister Ung Huot. And the fourth member, Svay Sitha, is an adviser to Hun

Sen's cabinet chief Sok An.

Even Vannarith admitted there was a perception of politicization of the CHRC.

"Me, I am the only member who is not political," he said. "I have

friends in the Sam Rainsy Party, in Funcinpec, in CPP. But Mr. Om Yen Tieng, he would

not dare to go to the Sam Rainsy office."

However, Vannarith protested that the CHRC is working hard behind the scenes. "The

Committee does not want to be like a drum that sounds so loudly," he said. "If

[critics] don't believe we are doing anything, they should ask the UN and Thomas

Hammarberg."

Yet UN rights envoy Thomas Hammarberg has repeatedly stressed that he is concerned

about the lack of progress on investigations and noted in April they lacked "strength

and vigor".

The CHRC was formed Jun 8, 1998 by prime ministerial sub-decree. Part of its mandate

is to respond to two memoranda from Hammarberg's office detailing about 80 unsolved

deaths around the time of the 1997 coup - many of which appear to implicate CPP forces

loyal to Hun Sen. But one year later, which saw scores more unsolved, suspicious

deaths before and after the 1998 election, the Committee appears to have done little.

The lack of transparency in the Committee has made it difficult to ascertain its

workings. On its formation, the CHRC promised to hold regular press conferences to

report on its progress, but has not.

It has published only one public document, a three-page report summarizing police

investigation of six murders around the time of the Sept 98 demonstrations.

"Besides the September report, [they have] produced nothing," said one

rights official. "Nothing is happening." Vannarith said the UN had requested

a written report on the unsolved Mar 97 grenade attack, which killed at least 16.

"But how can I report in writing, since it is the court which is investigating?"

He claimed that the Committee was doing what it could. "Whenever the Committee

is informed about human rights violations, we discuss it and try to find a way to

tackle the problem. . . sometimes we go to the spot and sometimes we don't go to

the spot, sometimes we get a good result and sometimes we don't get a good result."

He cited a pre-election case in Kampong Cham, where the Committee decided to phone

the governor and got information from him. "We decided not to go because we

had adequate information already."

In another case, a victim had a head wound and broken bones in his chest; the police

said it was suicide. "I did not believe the report," said Vannarith. "So

I suggested the authorities continue the investigation."

He added that work is hampered by lack of cooperation from local authorities, as

well as staff and financial limitations. But he cited two cases where the CHRC had

cooperated with the UN rights office to investigate; in one, a trafficking case,

the CHRC helped to resolve the situation, which Hammarberg has acknowledged.

The Committee hopes to run human rights training courses for the police and military,

and place a human rights liaison in every ministry. Vannarith also said he has been

traveling around the country investigating prison conditions and that he and Om Yen

Tieng had both gone into the field to investigate cases.

However, Vannarith complained that the UN memoranda were vague and difficult to follow

up.

"They provide information, but sometimes they just say, three or seven people

died, but no names at all," he lamented.

Yet many of the UN cases are clear and detailed. For example, the case of top Funcinpec

general Chao Sambath includes details of his demise - including dates, times, and

the CPP army unit which arrested him as he fled Phnom Penh after the coup - and the

state of his corpse upon exhumation, which showed signs of torture.

"We gave them the information [in the memoranda] in the hope that it would form

the basis for further investigations - that is still our hope," said UN rights

office director Rosemary McCreery.

Asked if CHRC had investigated Chao Sambath's death, Vannarith said he had interviewed

a monk in the area. "Chao Sambath was killed for money," he said. "The

chasing of him was political but the killing is not."

Another unsolved case of the many on the CHRC's docket is that of a Canadian citizen,

Michael Senior, who was shot dead just after the coup by victorious CPP soldiers,

according to the UN's memorandum.

Canadian Ambassador Gordon Longmuir said he presses Om Yen Tieng on the case every

time he sees him - "but we haven't seen anything come out of it. . . they just

say, 'It's being investigated'."

Asked if he was satisfied with the CHRC's handling of the case, Longmuir said: "No."

He added: "So far as we know, [the Committee] hasn't reported very much. They

haven't been very transparent."

However, the ambassador said Canada is considering helping the CHRC with the second

part of its mandate, drafting legislation to replace itself with an independent National

Human Rights Commission.

A Canadian rights expert did spend two weeks in Cambodia last month talking with

government, the CHRC, and human rights NGOs.

"There's a lot of support out there for the idea," Longmuir commented.

But he said Canada has made no firm commitment to help draft the law, and that a

new rights body would be toothless without reforms in the police and judicial system

as well - which Canada may help with.

He noted problems with the current committee - "It's not an independent human

rights committee, it's an arm of the government" - and emphasized that the Cambodian

government must demonstrate the necessary political will to make a new institution

truly neutral.

"We got very good assurances from the Prime Minister that that's exactly what

he wants to do," Longmuir said.

However, many human rights workers think the government's deeds, not its words, should

be heeded.

"The political will has to be there, and there's very little sign that the will

is out there," said one. "Look at the NEC, the Constitutional Council,

the Supreme Council of Magistracy - everything is tainted."

Disgruntled human rights activists in Phnom Penh criticize any cooperation with the

CHRC as lending legitimacy to what they believe is clearly a political, not neutral,

institution, and incapable of creating a neutral successor.

"Should you give the important task of drafting a law to make a genuine, independent

national human rights committee to such a commission?" asked the rights worker.

Longmuir underlined that Canada has not made any promises to help create a new commission.

"If it appears at any stage it would not meet the kind of concerns we have or

that there's not the political will to do it properly, we'll stop doing it."

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