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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - UN doubts government's commitment to elections

UN doubts government's commitment to elections

THE Royal Government has asked the United Nations to coordinate "technical assistance"

in Cambodia's upcoming elections, but senior UN officials have warned the level of

assistance will depend on the government's commitment to free and fair elections.

The request - issued by Co-Interior Ministers Sar Kheng and You Hockry and received

by the United Nations Development Program on May 9 - did not mention specifics, but

under UN guidelines "technical assistance" includes advice on logistics,

the organization of elections, voter education and the training of election administrators.

The request has been forwarded to the UN's Department of Political Affairs in New

York for approval, but a senior UN official has expressed concern at an apparent

lack of political will to hold free and fair elections and acknowledged the international

body did not want to participate in a process which is "doomed to fail".

Other sources agreed that powerful figures within the government were reluctant to

involve the UN to any significant extent and confirmed that Second Prime Minister

Hun Sen recently told a senior UN envoy: "the UNTAC elections were the worst

elections held in the world, ever."

A big UN concern is the lack of legal and institutional support for legitimate elections,

the existence of which would determine the willingness of the UN to invest further

in Cambodia's political future.

UN concerns follow a recent low-key visit to Cambodia by Francesc Vendrell, the head

of the UN's East Asia and Pacific Department of Political Affairs. Though Vendrell

did not speak to the press during his three day visit in mid-June, a number of participants

in a series of private meetings confirmed he was concerned about the future of Cambodian

democracy and that the international body had no desire to be involved in "sham"


According to sources, Vendrell noted an apparent lack of interest within some quarters

to continue Cambodia's political development and was worried that, at this point

at least, there was little prospect of free and fair elections in 1997 and 1998.

Among his concerns were the politicization of the police and military, continuing

human rights violations, a low level of administrative expertise and bureaucratic

inertia. In addition he cited the lack of an effective legislative framework.

An electoral law covering the 1998 national elections has yet to be drafted, and

the legal draft setting out procedures for the 1997 commune ballot allocates the

entire election administration to the Interior Ministry.

The Political Party Law, which will outline procedures for setting up and registering

parties, is still being drafted and is unlikely to be passed before the end of 1996.

At the Post's press time, debate on the Nationality Law - crucial for setting up

a register of eligible voters - had been postponed until July 1.

In addition Vendrell cited the urgent need for an independent electoral commission,

the Constitutional Council (CC) and the Supreme Council of Magistrates (SCM). Article

117 of the Constitution states the CC has the power to adjudicate over disputed election

returns but its setting up is dependent on the convening of the SCM as three of the

CC's nine members are to be drawn from the Council of Magistrates.

More than 18 months after a law governing the SCM was passed, its formation remains

disputed between the coalition partners. Chaired by the King, its membership includes

the Minister of Justice, the Chief Judges and Prosecutors of the Supreme and Appeal

Courts and three judges elected by the judiciary.

However, the judiciary is made up entirely of officials appointed to their positions

previous to multi-party elections in 1993, raising questions about their impartiality.

Attempts by Funcinpec to appoint judges have so far failed which leaves the party

facing the unpalatable prospect of endorsing a Supreme Council of Magistrates dominated

by members of the Cambodian People's Party.

"Why would Funcinpec do that?" one source said. "The proposed members

[of the SCM] are CPP - only the King is neutral."

Another source suggested that members of both major parties were "nervous"

about the power the SCM and the Constitutional Council would assume. "Members

of both bodies will enjoy considerable power and autonomy," he said suggesting

they could dilute the power currently enjoyed by Cambodia's ruling elite.

Delays in preparing for the upcoming elections, according to a senior Interior Ministry

source, have been compounded by recent political tensions which have prevented an

earlier call for UN assistance from the Royal Government. "We do not have the

resources or expertise to conduct free and fair elections... we need international

help to fulfill the commitments we made at the Paris Peace Accords."

He also suggested that "certain political leaders" would prefer Cambodia

conduct its elections without the UN. Second Prime Minister Hun Sen has a number

of times criticized the West for interfering in Cam-bodia's internal affairs and,

according to sources, may push to bypass the UN favoring electoral support from a

body like ASEAN.

However, a senior Funcinpec official disputed Hun Sen's interpretation. He said the

UN had its problems, but it had set Cambodia on the road to peace and his party welcomed

further UN assistance.

"We have a lot of work to do and we don't have the expertise [to do it]. It's

quite reasonable for the international community to give advice and make demands.

It's reasonable for the international community to expect that the contract [the

Paris Peace Agreement] be respected by the Government. It's reasonable for the international

community to remind the Royal Government to respect human rights... these are based

on agreements, it's not interference in Cambodia's internal affairs."

As Cambodia is one of just a few member states with a Special Representative of the

United Nations Secretary-General, any UN assistance must be coordinated by the Department

of Political Affairs (DPA) in New York. If the UNDP receives approval from the DPA

it will begin a program in accordance with the government's specific requests.

A senior UN source said the exact role of the DPA would emerge during that process.

"However," he said," anything more than technical assistance will

require approval from the UN General Assembly.

"This will be a Cambodian election - no-one wants another UNTAC, even though

certain elements are very anxious to see outside monitoring."

The UN Secretary General's Special Representative in Cambodia, Dr Benny Widyono,

said Cambodia had the right to request election observers from anywhere in the world

but the UN could coordinate those observers if invited to do so.

"Organization, conduct and supervision [the UNTAC model] of the elections is

out of the question - Cambodia is a sovereign country with a democratically elected

government recognized by 185 States of the UN."

Widyono joined other diplomats in emphasizing the difference between capacity building

in order that the Government could conduct its own elections, and other activities

aimed at ensuring a free and fair result. He said the presence of UN monitors would

require the approval of the UN General Assembly and that such an undertaking would

be considered carefully because it was very expensive.

The cost of conducting elections in Cambodia has yet to be fully examined but a French

advisor with the Ministry of Interior recently submitted a budget of $31 million

for both next year's commune elections and the national election in 1998.



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