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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - MoU with UN stalled by government

Cambodia’s representative to the UN in Geneva, Ney Sam Ol, delivers a statement during the 33rd Session of the Human Rights Council last week. Photo supplied
Cambodia’s representative to the UN in Geneva, Ney Sam Ol, delivers a statement during the 33rd Session of the Human Rights Council last week. Photo supplied

MoU with UN stalled by government

A memorandum of understanding between Cambodia and the United Nations has been stalled for almost 10 months thanks to the government’s insistence that an updated version include pointed references to the concept of “non-interference” lifted from the UN charter, the Post has learned.

The renewing of the long-overdue MoU between the Kingdom and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was one of the many demands of a statement endorsed by 39 countries at the United Nations Human Rights Council last week, which noted “deep concern” at the current human rights situation in Cambodia.

The MoU – which is renewed every two years with wording that has remained unchanged since 1993 – largely underpins the OHCHR’s mandate in Cambodia. It lapsed in December.

Speaking this week, OHCHR Cambodia representative Wan-Hea Lee said the sticking point centred on a reference to non-interference by the international body.

The Cambodian government, she said, has insisted that the MoU be updated to include reference to the UN Charter’s Article 2, Principle 7, which states the charter does not authorise the UN to intervene “in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state” and does not force states to submit “such matters to settlement”.

The paragraph also notes that the principle “shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures” under the charter’s Chapter 7, which deals with action concerning threats to the peace, breaches of the peace and acts of aggression.

However, the government only wants Article 2, Principle 7 included in the MoU, while the UN, if the section is to be included, wants it accompanied by all principles of the charter, “particularly those that set out the role of the UN in the promotion and protection of human rights”, Lee said.

“There have been considerable exchanges about this point, and I believe the respective positions of both sides are now well understood,” Lee said. Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry did not respond for a request to comment yesterday.

Though this is not the first time the agreement has lapsed, relations between the UN office and the government have been particularly strained in recent months, following the issuance of a warrant for the arrest of UN rights worker Soen Sally over the so-called sex scandal surrounding opposition leader Kem Sokha.

Hun Sen was publicly dismissive of Sally’s right to immunity while Anti-Corruption Unit chief Om Yentieng, who led the investigation – which saw four other human rights workers and an election official jailed – referred explicitly to the lapsed MoU in threatening to arrest the UN staffer.

The government, however, was forced to backtrack after the Foreign Ministry deemed the worker did have UN protection, though the charges have remained. The tension has also surfaced in a broader war of words between UN officials in Geneva and the Cambodian government, taking place as international criticism mounts over the Cambodia government’s treatment of political opponents.

In his opening remarks to the Human Rights Council last week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein took aim at countries that use the argument of sovereignty to block scrutiny by UN observers.

In what appeared a specific reference to Cambodia, the official said he classified “unreasonable delays, elaborately ritualised and unreasonably long negotiations” as “refusals of access”.

“Monitoring activities, and advocacy intended to help better protect the people of your countries, are refuted as somehow violating the principle of state sovereignty – or even the UN Charter,” he said.

“Human rights violations will not disappear if a government blocks access to international observers and then invests in a public relations campaign to offset any unwanted publicity. On the contrary, efforts to duck or refuse legitimate scrutiny raise an obvious question: what, precisely, are you hiding from us?”

In a response to the joint statement criticising Cambodia, Cambodian Ambassador to the United Nations Ney Sam Ol hit back, lashing out at what he called “politicization, double standards [and] selectivity” by the UN.

While saying the country wanted dialogue, the diplomat added: “We are negotiating to continue the MoU with the UNOHCHR, but we do not welcome interference in our political situation.”



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John Lowrie's picture

The Paris Peace Accords are still binding on all the parties. It is therefore appropriate to quote the special wording that gives the UN and the other signatory countries enduring responsibilities for human rights in Cambodia.

"Above all, in view of the recent tragic history of Cambodia, the States participating in the Conference commit themselves to promote and encourage respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cambodia, as embodied in the relevant international instruments to which they are party.

Recognizing that Cambodia’s tragic recent history requires special measures to assure protection of human rights, and the non-return to the policies and practices of the past.

Have agreed as follows:


Article 15 -2b: b) the other Signatories to this Agreement undertake to promote and encourage respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cambodia as embodied in the relevant international instruments and the relevant resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly, in order, in particular, to prevent the recurrence of human rights abuses.

Section 4, Article 3.3 - 3: The United Nations Commission on Human Rights should continue to monitor closely the human rights situation in Cambodia, including, if necessary, by the appointment of a Special Rapporteur who would report his findings annually to the Commission and to the General Assembly."

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