THE UN’s special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia is scheduled to begin his second official mission to the Kingdom today – a visit that marks a pivotal period in the rights watchdog’s relationship with government officials, observers say.
The visit of Surya Subedi is expected to last for nearly two weeks. Whereas his first mission last June was billed as a fact-finding trip intended to re-establish “conditions for a fruitful dialogue with the government on human rights issues”, this second visit will see the special rapporteur examining key state institutions that lead straight to the top of political power in Cambodia.
Subedi “intends to use the visit to examine the functioning of the National Assembly and judiciary, including the Supreme Council of Magistracy and the Constitutional Council”, according to a press statement released by the UN on Friday.
“His objective is to conduct an analysis of how these institutions work and the extent to which they provide citizens recourse and remedy for breaches of their rights.”
One rights advocate called Subedi’s planned visit “crucial” because he is expected to address the issue of judicial independence.
“These are some of the most important institutions in Cambodia,” said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights.
“Independence of the court has always been a core issue in Cambodia. Until now, unfortunately, it remains a problem area.”
The courts are currently under the direction of the Ministry of Justice, meaning that judicial officials are overseen by government officials, Ou Virak said. “Putting the court under the executive body is not going to help the court achieve independence,” he said.
Other rights advocates said they hoped Subedi would use his visit to hold authorities to account after a year in which critics slammed continued evictions of the poor and a spate of defamation suits against opposition lawmakers.
“We have not seen any progress on human rights in the last year,” said Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project.
“It’s important for Subedi to push the government to strengthen the judicial system.”
Retreading old ground
Subedi’s visit won’t be the first time a UN watchdog has tried to tackle the issue of judicial independence. His predecessor, Kenyan lawyer Yash Ghai, raised questions over a series of judicial appointments in August 2007.
“Recent judicial appointments appear not to have been made in accordance with the constitution, casting doubt on whether the constitutionally guaranteed principle of judicial independence is being fully respected in Cambodia,” read a 2007 statement released on behalf of Ghai, then the special representative of the secretary general for human rights in Cambodia.
Ghai faced public attacks from Cambodian officials for his blunt critiques.
By the time he quit in anger in September 2008, government officials had become outspoken critics of the rights watchdog, and Prime Minister Hun Sen was refusing to meet with him.
During his visit last June, Subedi seemed intent on mending bridges with government officials who had been at the heart of the tense back-and-forth with Ghai.
At the time, Subedi described his first visit as “constructive and cordial”, and Cambodian officials struck an optimistic tone.
Already, however, some cracks in the relationship have appeared.
In October, a lawmaker with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party reacted sternly after Subedi reported to the Human Rights Council in Geneva that Cambodia suffered from a weak rule of law, and that the judiciary was “not as independent as it should be”.
“Based on my observations, Mr Subedi is not different from Yash Ghai,” senior CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap told the Post at the time.
Reached for comment Sunday, Cheam Yeap accused Subedi of listening only to the government’s critics.
“He listened to one-sided information from civil society groups and opposition parties,” said Cheam Yeap.
“We acknowledged that there are loopholes in some small areas of the government’s enforcement of human rights, but we have been … trying to improve.”
Cheam Yeap said he hoped for “fair” treatment this time around.
“I think that [Subedi] should come and collect a fair report,” he said. “He should not listen to just the one side from NGOs and opposition parties.”
Subedi, who has already met twice with Hun Sen, including once during a July visit from the prime minister during a trip to the United Kingdom, is scheduled to meet with him again during this visit, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights confirmed Sunday.
This second official mission, then, could be important in setting the tone for his future dealings with the government, Ou Virak said.
“I think he’s walking a very fine line. We don’t know how the government is going to receive him this time,” Ou Virak said.
Subedi, he said, will have to decide how he wants the relationship to proceed.
“Does he build up his credit with the government and then use it in the future to have some impact? It’s one thing to walk a fine line and still have a good relationship. It’s another thing to use your power” as a UN-appointed rights watchdog, Ou Virak said.