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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - NGO in first Khmer criticism of Untac

NGO in first Khmer criticism of Untac

A NEW report on Untac, especially it's Human Rights Component, by Adhoc offers a new perspective on the relationship between Untac and local human rights NGOs which were then just being formed. It is also perhaps the first time the multi-billion dollar UN operation has been formally criticized by Cambodians.

The report was submitted to a conference organized by Human Rights Watch/Asia in New York on Sept 17 to assess the impact of UN missions in Cambodia, Nicaragua and El Salvador, said Adhoc President Thun Saray. Adhoc was the first local human rights NGO to be formed in early 1992, and several others were founded soon after.

All of them depended on the security provided by Untac to function in the early days of fear and intimidation. The report acknowledges this crucial role of Untac.

"In several cases Untac intervened to persuade reluctant local authorities to permit the establishment of offices and activities....throughout its mandate the [Human Rights] component proved itself ready to intervene on behalf of local NGOs in the event of harassment."

Other forms of support to the NGOs included training and educational materials, following up complaints of human rights abuses submitted by NGOs, financial help from the UN Trust Fund and two Human Rights symposia which put local groups in touch with regional and international NGOs.

"The three-month defender training course was also successful, and the component built up its own teams of Cambodian trainers who set up their own human rights training NGO after Untac's departure. This was an important achievement," it says.

However, the report says that the Human Rights Component's protective role also undermined the NGOs.

"It became the standard Untac view that the local NGOs were weak and ineffective in the transitional period, and it was too early to consider them as working partners. The nature of the mandate also encouraged the viewing of all Cambodians as passive recipients of Untac programs," the report says.

Saray says that while the NGOs were weak to start with, their activities and membership expanded rapidly and no account was taken of this change.

"We were young then - in fact we still are - but we did have experience in this country which would have been helpful in designing some programs," he said.

Adhoc also criticizes some of the staff in the Human Rights Component and their approach. The report says: "The Component was largely staffed by Westerners, and few had any grassroots or NGO experience. Those with Cambodian experience came from working with the Cambodian refugees."

The report points out that several human rights training programs for health workers and teachers were contracted out to foreign NGOs without any co-ordination with the existing ones in the country. As a result, the foreign experts trained teams of local trainers which simply dissolved after the project was over.

The report also says that the NGOs' training programs, curricula and expanded activities were not acknowledged by Untac.

"Adhoc alone carried out more than 650 training courses in the transitional period and 240 pre-election civic education seminars reaching some 25,000 persons. This was largely matched by Licadho.

"Local NGOs undertook their own electoral campaign, sometimes reaching areas where the UN feared to go, and also had a countrywide domestic election monitoring operation with 1,400 monitors. None of these achievements were ever reported by Untac and their scale was probably unknown to its officials."

But the biggest problem, according to Adhoc, was that Untac encouraged local NGOs to forward all complaints to it for investigation, to protect them from security threats.

The report says that while there was a real threat in cases of political violence, non-political cases could have been left for local NGOs to follow up.

"If we had investigated non-political cases and made prison visits with Untac officials, we wouldn't have needed to start from the beginning once they left," Saray said.

Moreover, the report adds, Untac's "conscipicuous lack of success in achieving redress of much of what they investigated undermined their credibility with local NGOs and the population." The exception to this, it says, were some political intimidation cases.

Adhoc also says that there was little information sharing on even important issues like the results of investigations and the later setting up of the special prosecutor's office whose periodic reports were not translated into Khmer.

"We were established because of Untac's presence," Thun acknowledges, "But the problem was that Untac thought always in the short term, in terms of it's one and a half year stay here. Very often, it did not think of the long term."

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