Surya Subedi, the United Nations special rapporteur for human rights, is on his fourth fact-finding mission to the Kingdom.
His last report to the UN Human Rights Council analysed the judiciary and made recommendations to improve its independence. Subedi is in the country this time to analyse parliament and investigate other human rights issues, including land disputes and evictions, free speech and the government’s draft NGO law.
You’re focusing on parliament during this visit. What are you looking at?
I’m looking for answers to three questions, basically. How effective parliament has been in exercising its powers to uphold human rights. Number two: how effective parliament has been in making sure that its activities conform to democratic norms as practiced internationally. Number three: how effective parliament has been in exercising its powers to restrain the executive, or to provide an effective oversight of the activities of different government departments. At the end of the day, parliament is at the heart of democracy.
In your last report, you recommended that the government adopt two laws that would delineate the organisation of the judiciary and the functions of judges and prosecutors. What is the status of those laws?
They were drafted some time ago. I haven’t been able to look at that draft, but those drafts have never reached parliament. So I would like to encourage the government to speed up the process of enacting those [pieces of] legislation. They are so crucial for the independence of the judiciary. The 1993 Constitution requires them to have these pieces of legislation in place. They should have been in place in the 1990s.
The meeting with the Prime Minister [Hun Sen] was by and large a positive one. He did acknowledge that there are some problems within the judiciary. So I’m hoping that other senior members of the government will engage in constructive dialogue with me with regard to the implementation of my recommendations.
One major reform passed by the government is the new penal code. Shortly after it went into effect, the UN World Food Programme employee Seng Kunnaka was convicted of defamation for sharing printed articles from the antigovernment website KI-Media with a couple colleagues. Is what he did really illegal?
That case has been brought to my attention. Rather than going into specific individual cases I am looking at the whole issue: freedom of speech. Defamation and disinformation should be decriminalised all together.
Given that one party has overwhelming control over every state institution, what’s the best way to hold the government accountable on human rights issues?
The outcome you have in this country at the moment is due to the election results in July 2008. I’m of the view that for a properly functioning democracy there has to be an effective opposition. That’s the reason why I’m looking at the freedom of speech issue. Parliamentarians who are supposed to defend the freedom of speech of the citizens should have their own freedom of speech guaranteed by law.
There have been suggestions that cases 003 and 004 at the Khmer Rouge tribunal should be sent to the Cambodian courts. Are they prepared to handle them?
[It’s] rather premature for me to comment on that one. But what I can say is that the Cambodian judiciary stands to benefit from some of the best practices of the tribunal. And if some of the best practices of the tribunal are able to influence the judiciary as a whole, the judiciary should be very equipped to handle any future cases.
Last week, you investigated the land dispute in Kampong Chhnang province involving the company KDC International. A villager representative and a rights activist have been convicted of disinformation and defamation. What are your thoughts on that case?
I was shocked and moved by the plight of the people evicted from the land. They were dependent on cultivating the land. Now the land is not producing any crops, and the people who used to produce crops have nowhere to go. So that’s a rather unfortunate situation. So I went to the province and spoke to the villagers directly myself. That issue will be one of the items for discussion with the senior government ministers that I’ll be meeting this week.
How does the government take to private criticism?
Well because Cambodia is part of the UN… it will have to respond to the satisfaction of the international community what it has done with regard to the communications that I mentioned to the government. So the day will come when the government has to answer.
Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Thomas Miller