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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - UN rep naming held up by trial

UN rep naming held up by trial

UN rep naming held up by trial

AFTER a seven-month vacancy the United Nations continues to delay the appointment

of a replacement for Special Representative for Human Rights in Cambodia, Thomas

Hammar-berg, who left office on Dec 31.

The delay has raised serious concerns among observers and human rights groups about

the future of the Special Representative's mandate. Some fear it may be abolished

al-together.

According to sources close to the process, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan holds

a shortlist of at least eight candidates for the position. But a final appointment

has been postponed till an agreement over a Khmer Rouge tribunal is signed with the

Cambodian Government.

New York and Phnom Penh have sparred for months over how to set up a trial to prosecute

former KR leaders. Last month the two sides agreed on a Memorandum of Understanding

that will be signed after the National Assembly passes a law establishing the tribunal.

During his time in office, Hammarberg took a substantial and active interest in the

negotiations, but his involvement was not always popular with the UN's Legal Office

in New York

Therefore, Annan has chosen to leave the position of the Special Representative vacant

till the tribunal matter is settled, to centralize control over the negotiations

within his own office.

"People in Hammarberg's position tend to be independent-minded. They are seconded

from other jobs, without UN pay, so can't be made to toe the line," says Cambodia

scholar Steve Heder.

"Since anyone with a serious commitment to human rights would be unhappy with

the deal that has been made, it would be hard to guarantee that a new Special Representative

would not question it, perhaps even in public."

Meanwhile, local and international human rights groups point out that the assignment

of the Special Representative stretches far beyond a KR tribunal and say there is

an urgent need to appoint a replacement for Hammarberg immediately.

"The fact that Hammarberg's position has gone vacant for more than half a year

is a matter of utmost concern to Human Rights Watch," says Sara Colm of international

human rights organization Human Rights Watch.

"High-level interventions by the Special Representative, together with advocacy

by local and international NGOs, are still needed to help advance the cause of human

rights in Cambodia, where the problems of impunity, mob killings, torture and forced

evictions have not gone away."

Marlene Alejos, Assistant to the Special Representative and Chief of Monitoring and

Protection at the UN Center for Human Rights in Phnom Penh, acknowledges that the

absence of a Special Representative has imposed limitations on the UN's human rights

work in Cambodia.

"The Special Representative is able to address human rights issues at the highest

level of government. When the position is left vacant, it means that there is one

less high-profile mechanism to address these issues and that also renders local human

rights organizations more vulnerable," she said.

During the vacancy, the Center has had to advocate the cause of human rights in Cambodia

through other UN channels, particularly the Human Rights Commission's special rapporteurs

on specific subjects such as torture, involuntary disappearances, freedom of opinion

and expression and toxic waste.

The Center has also assembled a compilation of previous recommendations by Hammarberg

and his predecessor, to be distributed when the UN General Assembly convenes in September.

Normally, the Special Representative would address the Assembly personally, but this

year that slot will be empty.

A UN source suggests that the absence of Hammarberg's future replacement at the Assembly

may jeopardize the whole mandate of the Special Representative.

"The Cambodian Government may use the opportunity to try to neutralize the mandate,

pointing out that Cambodia has already been without a Special Representative for

so long now. It will be very interesting to see what Prime Minister Hun Sen and National

Assembly President Prince Ranariddh will say in their speeches in New York,"

the UN source says.

Also, the reduced attention on human rights in Cambodia creates a risk that the mandate

for a Special Representative will not be extended by the UN Human Rights Commission

at its annual session in Geneva in April next year.

"It can disappear very quickly and we have seen it happen with other mandates

before. The mandate for a Special Representative is a privilege and one that it is

not going to stay there by itself. It needs to be protected and promoted," said

the UN source.

Only substantial lobbying in both New York and Geneva by local and international

organizations will ensure that the mandate is not canceled or watered down.

Likewise, the UN source suggested that human rights groups ask to review the profiles

of the current candidates to avoid an appointment that is part of a larger political

game and not entirely in the interest of the human rights cause.

"All it takes to kill the mandate of the Special Representative is really to

appoint the wrong person," the source says.

Among the candidates on the current shortlist is one from Japan. When the mandate

of the Special Representative was extended in Geneva this year, the resolution was

brought forward by Japan. Japan is also the largest financial donor to Cambodia.

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