Sitting down yesterday for its second UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of human rights since its first in 2009, Cambodia attempted to defend, among other things, its recent violent crackdowns on demonstrations in the capital as it faced its fellow UN member states.
Every UN member must regularly undergo the UPR process, in which recommendations come from individual countries directly rather than the UN itself. But the recommendations are non-binding, and implementing them is the “responsibility of the state concerned”.
In its 2009 hearing, Cambodia accepted all 91 of the human rights recommendations given by other member states, but its implementation of them has been, in the words of the Swiss representative, “patchy”.
As a result, much of Cambodia’s presentation yesterday on the progress made since 2009 consisted largely of promises of future reforms, rather than a list of achievements.
“Some [2009 recommendations] were already implemented, some are being implemented and some will be implemented in the future,” Cambodia’s representative, national Human Rights Committee vice-chairman Mak Sambath, told the assembly in Geneva.
The Cambodian delegation frequently invoked long-awaited proposed reforms to the country’s judiciary – many of which have been languishing for years – with a representative of the Ministry of Interior who accompanied Sambath saying that “within the next two or three weeks, we have to finalise these laws”.
Sambath also promised to “reform the whole election system”, and to hold a workshop to that end in the next three months.
“We want to have a voting process that is acceptable to everyone, and then we will discuss, and for the future election, it will be much better for Cambodia, especially for the Cambodian people, so they can accept who is the winner and who is the loser and there is no crisis, as there is at the moment,” Sambath said.
That “crisis” was invoked by multiple member states.
“The use of live ammunition by security forces in early January cannot be justified,” the United Kingdom’s delegation said, referring to a violent crackdown on an unruly demonstration on Veng Sreng Boulevard that left at least four dead. That view was echoed by representatives from the United States, Sweden and others.
The UK also called on the government to release the 23 people jailed at that demonstration, and noted that the subsequent “ban on assembly in Phnom Penh has no basis in Cambodian law, and should be lifted”.
However, Cambodia’s representative from the Ministry of Interior defended the measures taken to quell the demonstrations as “very necessary”.
Sambath echoed the sentiment, saying that the government “give[s] rights, but the rights should not affect the normal living of other people”.
Seemingly anticipating criticism, Sambath argued in his initial remarks that while the government respects freedom of expression, this freedom could not come at the expense of “others’ dignity [and] the good tradition of society”.
But not all comments directed at Cambodia were negative.
Vietnam, for one, “congratulate[d] Cambodia on her recent achievements … such as the recent fair election and progress made on land rights”.
China, taking its typical UN stance of non-interventionism, said it appreciated Cambodia’s efforts to improve its record and “applaud[ed] its success”, while urging it to go its own way.
“[Cambodia] should, in line with its own economic level, choose its own human rights path. This is something we support,” the Chinese delegation said.
At least one comment from the Swiss delegation expressing concerns over “allegations of racial discrimination” seemed to be aimed at the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, which has been criticised for its anti-Vietnamese rhetoric.
CNRP president Sam Rainsy, reportedly in Geneva yesterday, could not be reached for comment.
Janice Beanland, an Amnesty International campaigner for Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam who attended the UPR, said that despite strong stances taken by member states, Cambodia’s high-ranking delegates’ responses to the recommendations “were limited and didn’t answer the questions asked”.
Beanland also called on the government to “genuinely” cooperate with others, including civil society, in its implementation of this latest round of recommendations.
“Clearly, any recommendations will only be implemented if there is political will on behalf of the government,” Beanland said. “Cambodia’s human rights situation is probably worse now than it was in 2009, and so the need to implement reforms is perhaps even more acute and pressing than ever.”