The government has announced plans to upgrade a sub-decree on torture prevention to the status of royal decree in order to comply with its international obligations, but observers said yesterday that the proposed changes will do little to bolster the body’s impartiality.
The decision was confirmed in a September 21 letter from Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng, who directs the current national working group on preventing torture, violence and inhumane treatment, to fellow working-group member Mak Sambath, who directs the Human Rights Committee.
Although Cambodia ratified the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against Torture in 2007, it has not established the independent national body to monitor and prevent torture in places of detention, the establishment of which is required under the convention within one year of ratification.
Cambodia’s current body is stacked with officials directing the very prisons whose alleged rights violations they are meant to be monitoring, raising questions as to the body’s independence.
Meanwhile, the Kingdom has come under scrutiny internationally, and intense criticism locally, for its failure to adhere to the convention, in particular with respect to abuses inside detention facilities.
Kheng’s correspondence came in response to an earlier letter, sent in August, in which Sambath recommended Cambodia upgrade its current working group via royal decree to meet the requirements of an independent national body.
“To fulfil the effectiveness of the task, stakeholders who have authority in prison management and detention centres, should not be recruited into the [body] in order to avoid condemnation in national and international contexts,” the August letter noted.
In his response this month, however, Kheng maintained that the presence of such officials could streamline the workings of the revamped body.
The proposed new group would alter the composition of the current working group, and would potentially include legal expertise from the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Ministry of Labour, but authorities have been unable to confirm whether it would exclude officials currently in the working group with links to prison management.
Pol Lem, a secretary of state for the Ministry of Interior who has been promoted by Sar Kheng to develop the new mechanism, acknowledged the possibility of conflict of interest, even among those slated to join the new body.
“Nuth Sa An is now a permanent deputy director of the working group, as well as secretary of state in charge of prisons. His son is the deputy director of the General Prison Department and has also been inserted into the new mechanism,” he explained, adding that the appointments are still yet to be confirmed.
Nuth Sa An could not be contacted for comment yesterday. Mak Sambath declined to speak in detail about representatives, but noted that he fully supported decisions made by Sar Kheng.
However, CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay criticised the effects of nepotism in government working groups such as this.
“This habit of having their own families employed in public work has caused many problems already,” he said, adding that the lack of independence within the oversight mechanism relates “to most of the torture cases that are happening in prisons that we need to address”.
Civil-society groups have also cast doubt on the appropriateness of incorporating representatives from prison and detention-facility management into any effective torture-prevention mechanism.
Am Sam Ath, investigating supervisor at human rights group Licadho, which in January issued a report documenting more than 500 cases of abuse by government officials in prisons and police stations since 2008, also questioned the impartiality of the oversight body.
“If someone is in charge of prison management and is in the mechanism, when there is a problem happening under his supervision, what sort of decision will be made?” he said.
Similarly, human rights consultant Billy Tai, who in March conducted a review of Cambodia’s implementation of international covenants, questioned the government’s commitment to monitoring abuses based on its prior record.
“The lack of empirical evidence presented by the Cambodian government on, for example, allegations around torture in prisons is something concerning,” he said. “The elevation of decrees is a strategy that the government often employs to appease foreign donors and observers. It is a good gesture, but questionable in terms of the actual mechanisms that will then be put in place to monitor abuses.”