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Mandate changes UN rights envoy

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Changes in the way the UN envoy reports to the Human Rights Council signify a turning point for human rights in Cambodia as the government says it will welcome a new envoy

VANDY RATTANA

UN human rights representative Christophe Peschoux in his office in Phnom Penh on Thursday. Following the somewhat acrimonious departure of former UN special representative Yash Ghai, the future of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia was momentarily questioned by the government, which now says it will welcome a new UN rapporteur.

THE Human Rights Council in Geneva has decided to renew its special envoy to Cambodia, albeit under a different title, signalling a turning point for the controversial UN mandate and human rights work in the Kingdom. 

The envoy post, which was held by Kenyan lawyer Yash Ghai until his resignation last week, will now report to the council rather than directly to the secretary general, and will go under the title of special rapporteur rather than special representative.

"The change makes very little difference [in practice]," Christophe Peschoux, representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told the Post Thursday.

Peschoux said the changes do not reflect diminished representation, despite the fact that many members of the UN Human Rights Council do not support UN mandates.

"It does represent a downgrading in position ... it is simply a move by the UN to simplify profiles," Peschoux said.

Government looking foward

Despite having threatened to close the UN office after Ghai's resignation, government officials Thursday expressed pleasure at the renewal of the mandate in its changed form.

The UN has a lot of good people, so i am confident they will assign someone who will not report negative issues [like yash ghai].

"We will welcome the UN assignment of special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia," Om Yentieng, head of the government's human rights committee, told the Post.

The change in mandate comes after both the world body and the government came under fire for their allegedly lucklustre commitment to improving the Kingdom's human rights climate.

Ghai used his resignation speech to expose what he described as a lack of support from the highest levels of the UN for his work, and to lament a total lack of commitment on the part of the Cambodian government to improving human rights.

During his three-year stint as envoy to Cambodia, Ghai himself was repeatedly publicly attacked by Prime Minister Hun Sen and other officials for his unusually blunt critiques of the government's rights record.

Om Yentieng said the government was now looking forward to working with a new personality.

"The UN has a lot of good people, so I am confident they will assign someone who will not report negative issues [like Yash Ghai]."

Local NGO groups have welcomed the renewal of the mandate, but expressed some concern for the way human rights are "managed" in Cambodia.

"The UN mandate can be problematic when special rapporteurs collaborate with the government and take a softer approach to important human rights issues," said Thun Saray, president of Cambodian rights NGO Adhoc.

He said it was an important time to establish the difference between diplomacy and complacency.

"It is a symbolic time for human rights in this country," he said. "The UN needs to set up key areas of reform if there is to be use for a special mandate."

Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, welcomed the renewal, but he said that while the UN office was important, it was risking becoming redundant.

"The UN office plays a different role to local NGOs. They have a mandate. They carry a lot of weight," he said.

"Having an office here is one thing, but having an office here that is effective and willing to sacrifice red-carpet service from the government is another."

But he said that this is a universal problem for the UN, which has a narrow scope to criticise government and must rely on good dialogue and cooperation to operate in all countries. 

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