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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - UN rights men Hun Sen's long-time whipping boys

UN rights men Hun Sen's long-time whipping boys

Rude, ill informed, unwelcome in Cambodia some of the epithets Prime Minister

Hun Sen has used in recent speeches to describe the United Nations new Special

Representative for Human Rights, Professor Yash Ghai.

But Hun Sen's

highly personal attacks on Ghai and UNCHR staff in Cambodia have been met with a

carefully considered silence.

"I have now decided that no useful purpose

will be served by further comments from me," Ghai told the Post in an email on

the April 4.

The relationship between the Cambodian government and the

UN Special Representative and the UN Office for Human Rights has always been

antagonistic. Since 1993 and the end of UNTAC, there have been four special

representatives - an Australian, a Swede, an Austrian and a Kenyan. Hun Sen has

attacked each of them in turn said Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch Asia Director.

"Each arrived with impeccable credentials and reputations," he said.

"Each was clearly independent of any government. And each looked at Cambodia

with his own eyes and reported what he saw, which when it comes to human rights

is not very pretty.

"In each case instead of working with him to address

the problems, Hun Sen has lashed out in very personal and vitriolic terms. Hun

Sen and his team have suggested that each was biased. This is nonsense. What

interest would any of these men have in reporting inaccurately on the situation

in Cambodia?"

Hun Sen's attack on Ghai is part of a broader pattern of

antagonism, Adams said.

"Hun Sen has always opposed the presence of the

UN human rights office," he said.

In 1995 he and Prince Norodom

Ranariddh formally asked for the office to be closed, but donors and the UN said

no. Maintaining a UN human rights office and Special Representative in Cambodia

is essential, Adams said, for three key reasons, which underscored the UN's

refusal to withdraw the office in 1995 and are still valid today.

"First, the underlying human rights situation remains quite poor," Adams

said.

"Second, there is little doubt that once the UN is out, Hun Sen

would start targeting civil society in much tougher ways than even last year,

shutting down critical NGOs and imprisoning activists. He and others in the

government still do not believe in pluralism, which is what civil society

represents.

"Finally, the smart diplomats - and in 1995 this included

France, Japan, Australia and the United States - realized they were doing Hun

Sen a favor by keeping the UN human rights presence. Hun Sen is prone to

excesses, as with the 1997 coup. He needs institutions to restrain him. There

are few, if any, Cambodian institutions that can do this. But the UN human

rights office, backed by the international community, can play this role in a

crisis."

The verbal attacks on Ghai came hot on the heels of the

successful conclusion of the 2006 Consultative Group (CG) meeting at which

donors pledged $601 million to the Cambodian Government. The timing was not

coincidental, Adams said.

"I don't think there is any chance that Hun

Sen would have responded the same way before the CG meeting," he

said.

"He was in real trouble with donors and a lot of money was at

stake. His actions over the previous year - arresting so many activists and

forcing Sam Rainsy into exile - violated every promise he had made to donors

about pluralism, support for civil society, and the rule of law.

"And on

the commitments the government had made on reform, none in the area of human

rights, corruption, good governance, or the rule of law had been met. So he took

a tactical step back. But thus far there hasn't been any real

change."

Despite the lack of concrete developments, the tactical step

back served to reassure donors that all was well, Adams said.

"Once

again, as they seem to do every year, the donors accepted a charade. Either

consciously or unconsciously, they made Hun Sen's public relations exercise a

success."

Ghai himself lambasted what he perceived as donor complicity in

Cambodia's worsening human rights record in the comments concluding his mission.

He argued that if donor agencies condone rights violations in the name of

forging strong links with the Cambodian government, they betray their own

citizens as well as Cambodians.

"If indeed it is true that donor agencies

are not very mindful of human rights or democracy, but just wish to build a cosy

relationship with the government, then it seems to me that they are not only

failing the people of Cambodia but their own domestic taxpayers as well, who

approve these grants in the expectation that the poor people of these countries

will be the beneficiaries," Ghai said on March 28.

His criticisms of the

donor community found strong support from the Asian Human Rights Centre (AHRC)

and other members of the donor community who have long been calling for stronger

conditions to be imposed on aid.

"The AHRC has referred to the connivance

of the donor community [as a major factor] in preventing genuine democracy and

human rights from taking root in Cambodia through its unwillingness to impose

aid conditionality," a press release issued on March 30 stated.

Adams,

too, holds that the donor community cannot escape blame for the deterioration of

human rights in Cambodia.

"Hun Sen has been running circles around the

diplomatic and donor community for many years, and he just did it again," he

said.

"If this were a sport you'd have to admire his skill. But this is

about people's rights and the quality of their lives - $600 million a year is

still a lot of money for Cambodia and largely keeps the government afloat. It's

time to use the leverage that accompanies it wisely."

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