O N his third trip to the country since he was appointed the UN Secretary General's Special Representative for Human Rights in Cambodia late last year, Justice Michael Kirby is positive about the progress the country has made.
"There are little steps being taken which are unheralded, but which are the foundations of civil society. Every day institutions are being built," Justice Kirby said in an interview with the Post.
The first week of his fortnight-long stay was spent with visits to Battambang and Sihanoukville. Justice Kirby said that "the lesson I have learnt is that peace is the primary necessity for building stable human rights institutions."
Shifting away from traditional human rights themes, Justice Kirby is focusing during this visit on land mines as a basic human rights issue, and is to hold a press conference exclusively on it today, July 29, before he ends his visit.
"The right to life is obviously one of the central human rights, and mines pose a threat to right to life and movement and all other rights that people take as normal," he said.
"I spoke to villagers working and living in land which is mined, because it is the only land they could afford to purchase. It is a terrible, de-stabilizing problem," he added.
While in Battambang, Justice Kirby said he was also told that the secret prisons at Cheu Khmau, in which 16 people were allegedly being illegally held by the military, was being officially investigated. All but two of the prisoners had been released, he said, and the two remaining would be released soon.
"The government has sent an investigation team and I was informed that the officer in charge of the prison has been arrested and brought to Phnom Penh. Suggestions that he be released were denied," Justice Kirby said, adding: "My hope is that the people who were responsible will be brought before court."
He described his visit to Battambang hospital to meet one of the prisoners who had been forced at gun point to do de-mining work, and had lost an eye, a leg and both arms.
Justice Kirby also visited the ethnic Vietnamese who have been living on boats on the border for more than a year, and said he thought theirs "should be treated as a special case, not part of the larger problem of ethnic Vietnamese, which is more complicated."
He said that even though several persons have lost identification papers to prove their residence in the country before 1979, there could be other ways of proof.
"They were all confident that there were Khmer friends who would speak up for them. It should not be a big problem to get local witnesses to vouch for them.
"In most countries, if people live peacefully for say ten years, they are entitled to citizenship along with its obligations, including military service. I think it is a fair comment of some Cambodian observers that they cannot get the privileges without the obligations," he said.
On the issue of press freedom and the arrest of Morning News editor Ngoun Noun, he said his concern was "not with the substance of the case-then I would be interfering with the work of the judge in charge - but with assuring Mr Ngoun Noun of his basic rights.
"This trial is well observed by the media and the diplomatic community, this is not a country with secret trials," he said, adding "I am aware of the criticisms that have been made about the article, but the experience of the world is that you have to tolerate a measure of criticism and even a measure of error because suppression is destructive of basic human rights."
On statements by the government restricting press freedom, he said he would continue to object to those which fell short of international human rights standards and the Cambodian Constitution, but added that "in any country, especially in the time of war, there are difficulties in securing the highest measure of freedom of expression. "
Judge Kirby pointed to several positive developments in the country, including improvement in prison conditions in Battambang and Phnom Penh's PJ prison, free access to prisons for NGOs and defenders, and the independent selection recently of magistrates to help with the work of courts.
"The government does listen to the advice given by the United Nations and generally, the advice is followed up. This is what distinguishes Cambodia from autocratic governments which are completely indifferent," he said.
Justice Michael Kirby's superior, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Jose Ayala-Lasso made his first visit to Cambodia on July 24-26.
Lasso met First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Acting Head of State Loy Sim Chheang and later saw the Defence and Interior Ministers.
The government's position on the press, the Vietnamese refugees on the border, strengthening the judicial system and the prison situation were discussed, Lasso said.
He also said he had raised concerns of NGOs that the law outlawing the Khmer Rouge would be used against them by the government.