Surya Subedi was appointed United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Cambodia in 2009 and carried out his fifth fact-finding mission to the Kingdom last week. He spoke to The Post on Friday.
You mentioned in a statement today that certain pieces of legislation in Cambodia had narrowed the scope of peoples’ rights. Which pieces of legislation are you referring to?
One example is the ... provision of the penal code on defamation, disinformation and incitement. The powers given to the executive are rather broad. While I welcome the legislation – it’s better to have a penal code than not to have one – it’s a progressive document in so many areas, but not progressive enough in a number of areas. They include mainly the provisions relating to freedom of speech. My position has been all along to decriminalise defamation and disinformation, and the penal code doesn’t do that.
Do you feel that broad powers for the executive are a common problem in Cambodian legislation?
I would not go as far as to generalise it, but generally speaking … parliament’s ability to restrain the executive has been limited. [Parliament] should be the defender and the guarantor of peoples’ human rights. To do so, parliament has to be more assertive, more independent and hold the executive to account.
A former UN World Food Programme employee, Seng Kunnaka, was convicted of incitement last year after sharing printed articles from an antigovernment website with co-workers. Do you believe that he was wrongfully charged?
I don’t want to go into the merit of the case at this stage, but I have concerns about the procedure involved. He was arrested on a Friday and he was convicted by Sunday afternoon – so within a matter of two days [the case went] from arrest to conviction – to me, casting serious doubt about the requirements of a fair trial. A trial of that nature, conducted and completed within two days, gave me cause for concern.
Villagers from Boeung Kak lake said in a letter to you this week that the international community had not done enough to hold the government to account for forced evictions and alleged rights abuses. Have donor countries and the UN done enough to press the Cambodian government for reform?
The international community could certainly do more, but the UN Human Rights Council has already included in its  resolution the need for national guidelines on evictions. These guidelines should include the procedure, the notification, compensation and the relocation.
The [2001 Land] Law itself is a good law, but the proper implementation of that law is a problem in this country – not implementing the law, not waiting for enough information, not waiting for the [parties] to go to courts to settle their disputes and using sometimes disproportionate force to evict people from their sites.
When there is a land dispute between two private individuals or between a private individual and a company, that matter should be resolved through the courts … or some other agencies established by law. The executive should not intervene in a dispute between two private individuals.
At a press conference this week, representatives from rights group Adhoc suggested that local authorities and the judiciary were biased toward rich and powerful people, particularly in land dispute cases. Is this an accurate assessment?
A very ambitious land-titling program is underway in this country [supported by German development agency GTZ and other agencies]. About 1,000 land titles are issued ... every week. If that process is allowed to take its course then many of the disputes will be resolved.
The problem here is the rich and powerful requesting the government or law enforcement agencies to intervene on their behalf and the law enforcement agencies are not waiting for the disputes to be settled through courts or other agencies established through the law.
Would you ever recommend that the UN or one of its agencies withdraw funding from Cambodia?
No, not necessarily. I would not go that far because this country needs international assistance: both financial assistance and technical assistance.
Have any of your recommendations as Special Rapporteur been implemented?
I made my position very clear from the very beginning that there should be national guidelines on land management issues. That guideline is being developed by the Minsitry of Land Management [Urban Planning and Construction] working together with other partners.
I asked the government to consult the concerned parties or associations when drafting the NGO law. Two rounds of consultations have taken place. The challenge is to make sure that the recommendations or proposals made by the NGOs are incorporated into the final version as much as possible.
One of my recommendations was to increase the budget available to the judiciary. The judiciary remains under funded in this country and I was given to understand that funding was increased for the judiciary, both in 2009 and 2010. [It was] not enough, but [there is] … clear progress.
Do you agree with NGO representatives who feel that there is no need for an NGO law in Cambodia?
My position is that there are enough laws already which govern the activities of NGOs, but Cambodia is a sovereign country and the National Assembly is a sovereign assembly. They have the right to legislate in the areas where they feel new laws are needed.
The challenge is that the new law should be a law which will enable NGOs to deliver their services better to the people of Cambodia, rather than restrict their activities.
You have said that laws must be made by a sovereign parliament, but in accordance with international obligations. What is the balance between the two?
As an international lawyer, I would say that there is no absolute sovereignty in existence anymore, anywhere. The sovereignty we are talking about is a limited sovereignty. There are international values imposed on states by international treaties. Once you join the [UN], you are bound by the values of the organisation, so that itself is limiting the freedom of action of states. No [UN member] state these days can have a dictatorial system of government which ignores the charter of the UN.
INTERVIEW CONDUCTED, CONDENSED AND EDITED BY MARY KOZLOVSKI