HUMAN rights workers in Cambodia say they feel increasingly pressured and isolated
as international attention moves still further away from their concerns.
Their job - teaching about rights plus recording, investigating and trying to alleviate
or stop cases of abuse - is suffering in the post-election climate, they say, because
of "opposition fatigue" from diplomats and funders.
The opposition itself may have harmed its own cause, and rights workers are cynical
at what they say is only a remission of intimidation by the CPP.
Cambodia's central human rights organization, the Cambodian Office of the UN High
Commissioner for Human Rights (COHCHR), has long been beset by allegations from the
CPP, some analysts and even diplomats of being "anti-CPP". CPP officials
claim that the office has deliberately sought to vilify the party in the eyes of
The charge, which has been equally long and patiently denied by UN workers and many
others, may however have moved UN chiefs to muffle the Secretary-General's Special
Representative for Human Rights in Cambodia, Thomas Hammarberg, sources say.
Hammarberg made an early reputation for making blunt comments. He repeatedly criticized
the government for not bringing to justice those responsible for political murders
However, a single line in his fifth report Aug 18 - "It is not the role of the
Special Representative to pass any judgment in these or other [complaints]"
- signals that, according to rights workers, "Thomas [Hammarberg] has got cold
"A number of his statements have been construed by New York as political...
He's been told on a number of occasions to stick to his human rights mandate,"
one source said.
"It might be OK to say 'the level of human rights violations is not conducive
to free and fair elections', but New York says it's political to say 'if the elections
are held in this present [human rights] climate they can't be free and fair'. Whatever,
[Hammarberg] is now under pressure and doesn't want interpretive reports, he just
wants the facts... no analysis or interpretations."
The COHCHR "should be proactive," the source said. "But Hammarberg
is under pressure to implement the feeling of the international community, particularly
the Western countries [which are] less and less supportive of the office's work."
"Western governments have given up," he said., adding there was little
Hammarberg could do given that he did not now enjoy wide support either inside or
outside the government.
"He's been reduced to preaching in the desert."
Phnom Penh-based diplomats say they're "more interested in getting this political
deadlock broken, and getting the government going. This is the priority and then
we'll watch and see what happens [with human rights]," said one ambassador.
"[Human rights], especially in the media, has been over-played," he said.
"So far the government has been very careful to ensure nothing has happened...
and if that keeps going it's good."
Hammarberg had not replied to email questions about the comments made about him,
or about Cambodia's human rights situation, at Post press time.
The UN office is due to lose some of its most experienced staff over the next few
months, and the mandates of its short-term provincial monitors for the election period
expire at the end of this month.
Local human rights groups, meanwhile, are looking worriedly at their budgets. "I
get the sinking feeling that we're not popular at all," said one local rights
chief. "We've long been saying what [the international community] doesn't want
"A lot of donors are reconsidering their commitment to human rights and democracy
[NGOs] in Cambodia at the moment... [the international community is] not interested,
that's very clear."
CPP Vice-President and Second Prime Minister Hun Sen has made at least two public
statements that he would not tolerate rights abuses - one before the election and
another Aug 2.
"I appeal seriously to all CPP members to be politically mature and to be a
symbol of national reconciliation," Hun Sen reportedly said, adding that intimidation
was illegal, immoral and that perpetrators would not be given any concession.
His appeals worked. Hammarberg noted the "significant decline" in human
rights abuses following Hun Sen's statement.
Critics say the Hun Sen's words merely illustrated the fact that political intimidation
is an abuse controlled systematically, centrally and from on-high.
"Hun Sen calculated that if he could have a clean election day, and if the following
couple of months could be clean, then he could get away with all the political violence
and intimidation that went on before," one rights worker said. "He calculated
By the same logic, the CPP did not want to jeopardize the future legitimacy and recognition
of their new government, he said.
"Of course [the CPP] isn't going to do anything," the source added. "What
Hun Sen feared were people below his level acting with their own hands. This was
Cynicism about the extent of human rights abuse - and questions about the agendas
being held of those publicizing and investigating the problem - have deepened in
the post-election period.
One human rights worker said that in the past three weeks or so 80% of the cases
opposition activists have brought to him have proved groundless. There was even a
suggestion that at least one made by a Rainsy activist - a rape charge - had been
Increasingly, rights workers say, political motives are being wrongly blamed for
personal disputes. Investigators routinely dismiss frivolous complaints. In one instance,
a missing cow was the central character of an allegation of a politically-based human
On Aug 7 the Post published a story about "Phanna", a 17-year-old youth
from Kampong Cham who claimed to have fought at O'Smach. He said a group of soldiers
had arrived at his house and shot at a Funcinpec sign, and that he had been beaten
up by a stranger after his Funcinpec party card fell from his pocket as he fled.
He was one of hundreds who turned up at the Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy headquarters
after the election complaining of intimidation, and he was quoted in the Post as
saying "Hun Sen is a killer!".
"Phanna" was introduced to the Post by a local human rights organization.
His story had not been investigated and has since been proved as a tissue of lies
While many opposition activists have genuinely suffered abuse and are fearful for
their safety, rights lawyers say that opposition groups risk the effects of "crying
wolf" by making unsubstantiated claims which could undermine genuine cases in
Cases of abuse were not usually intentionally fabricated, one rights worker said.
But Funcinpec and SRP officers "never check the information, that's the first
"If it's a first-hand account, usually it's correct. But if it's only the person
at the end of the chain putting down the story... there's a high chance the story
is not true."
Claims by the opposition of abuse "are genuinely in good faith... but [the parties]
are not organized to verify the information themselves... they're extremely poorly
Another rights worker said: "A lot of people will probably laugh when they hear
this but local people were losing it... there was this whole stress build-up [and]
extremely high anxiety levels, to the point some people had to be medicated. But
it shows how traumatized people were."
The worker believed the CPP would think it neither timely nor a good idea to change
its strategy of suppressing rights abuses - for now.
However, another senior rights lawyer with years of experience in Cambodia said:
"[The CPP] will continue to work as they have in the past. They will identify
the most active [opposition members] and buy them off or neutralize them.
"If [opposition activists] demonstrate a tight attachment to their party, I
think the job of killing will continue."