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UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith addresses reporters at a press conference at the Phnom Penh headquarters of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights yesterday. VICTORIA MøRCK MADSEN

UN envoy wraps visit

UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith concluded her first official visit to Cambodia yesterday, highlighting the extensive list of human rights concerns facing the country but insisting progress could be made during her six-year mandate.

Speaking at a press conference at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Phnom Penh, Professor Smith welcomed pledges she said she had received from senior members of the government to cooperate with her office’s work.

“I sincerely hope to see that cooperation continue, for advice, no matter how sound, will require action to impact on the lives of people,” she said.

That work consists of monitoring and reporting on the human rights situation in the Kingdom, with Smith set to present a report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva next week, as well as offering advice to the various stakeholders she meets on her fact-finding missions.

Among those who sat down with Smith during her nine-day visit were Prime Minister Hun Sen and nine of his ministers, including Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng.

Smith also met senior lawmakers including deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha, as well as a host of civil society representatives.

She also visited Koh Kong province, where three environmental activists imprisoned in mid-August over their protests against sand dredging were denied bail on Tuesday – the day after Smith’s visit began.

Smith told reporters she would be “monitoring and following” any arrests that appear to be politically motivated, including the recent imprisonment of members of the CNRP.

She also highlighted the need for reform to be implemented in order to maintain the “extraordinary pace” of development in Cambodia, as well as its growing role in the region.

“Further strengthening the rule of law, developing and ensuring the independence of those bodies with specific roles in the protection of human rights, particularly the judiciary, is essential for building the stable democratic nation that Cambodians aspire to live in,” she said. “Care must be taken to properly address situations which have created widespread discontent, including land and labour disputes”.

But according to political analyst Ou Virack, while the positive signals from both Smith and senior officials should be welcomed, it remains highly likely that Smith’s relationship will follow a similar path to her predecessors’, whereby early cooperation turns sour under the weight of persistent human rights infringements they have to report.

“You have a honeymoon period when the government is cordial and open to talks, then you have a fallout period,” he said. “Some of the [special rapporteur’s] reports will tend to be quite condemning of the government and that will inevitably cause problems.”

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