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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - UN's Leuprecht in Cambodia 'to listen'

UN's Leuprecht in Cambodia 'to listen'

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Austrian law professor Peter Leuprecht visited Cambodia for the first time from

November 26 till December 2 in his new position as UN Special Representative on

Human Rights. Near the end of his visit, Leuprecht spoke to Anette

Marcher about his role in promoting human rights in

Cambodia.

Peter Leuprecht ... 'I'm not coming here as a kind of prosecutor. I'm coming to listen and to indulge in what I hope will be a fruitful dialogue'

Post: How has your visit elapsed so far?

 

Leuprecht: I only arrived on Sunday, but it seems like I have been

here much longer. It's been hectic, very hectic. But also very interesting and

very fascinating. I did a lot of reading before I came here to educate and

prepare myself, and I've learned a lot during this trip.

Post: What is

your assessment of the current human rights situation in Cambodia?

Leuprecht: I will make my assessment in what will be a fairly lengthy

report to the UN Human Rights Commission. It will also include a set of

recommendations. The gist of it is that there are positive things and there are

less positive things.

My hope is that I can, however modestly, contribute

to the building of a peaceful and democratic society based on human rights and

rule of law. It should be understood that I'm not coming here as a kind of

prosecutor. I'm coming to listen and to indulge in what I hope will be a

fruitful dialogue with the intention to make progress.

Also, I see myself

very much as part of a collective effort. I have already started a dialogue with

other institutions, and I believe that if you want progress it is also very

important to be connected with the donor community.

As you know I was a

Eurocrat in my earlier life so I will try to work very closely with the European

Union. After all, the Union is responsible for some 30 percent of the aid to

Cambodia.

Post: Some will say that the European Union does not exactly

have an outstanding record on promoting human rights in this country.

Leuprecht: I will not comment on that. Maybe it will improve. When you read

the Union's papers on Cambodia, the human rights are in there.

Post:

What aspects of human rights will you focus on?

Leuprecht: I will focus on five big areas. One is violence - the

eradication of violence. When I met with [Prime Minister Hun Sen's advisor] Om

Yentieng, he tried to narrow this area down to domestic violence. And domestic

violence is a real problem, but what I also mean - and this will be a

recommendation in my report - is the eradication of political

violence.

It may be a matter of definition. When I met with the Prime

Minister, I asked him to send a clear message to the whole country that

violence, including political violence, will not be tolerated. He said that

there is no political violence.

But this is particularly important in

light of the upcoming commune elections. They are the next deadline. Many people

fear that there might be a renewal of the violence - in fact there already has

been violence.

Another big area is the rule of law in a broad sense. The

functioning of the judiciary - where a lot can be desired - the police and the

corruption. I think I have had some useful discussions about this area.

I

was allowed to visit PJ prison and the military detention center, and I greatly

appreciated the assistance of the staff there and in the two responsible

ministries. They were very open and pointed themselves to the shortcomings and

the lack of funds.

Particularly in PJ prison, the material conditions are

terrible and very poor: Very overcrowded, minors mixed up with adults and the

problem of [insufficient] food rations.

In the military detention center

I was also allowed to speak to whom I wanted to, including Ta Mok and Duch. I

had a good conversation with both of them. They seem to be surprisingly relaxed.

They say they are treated well and in good health. When you have read so much

about these people and suddenly you are standing in front of them, it makes

quite an impression.

A third area is what I call domestic implementation

of international human rights treaties to which Cambodia is a party. Cambodia

has ratified a great number of international human rights treaties - much more

than the US.

But the question is of course the implementation of these

treaties, and here I see some practical aspects. We could use the monitoring

mechanisms in the treaties as a very useful aid in promoting human rights. This

means following up on recommendations and taking the reporting seriously. Our

office here is quite ready to help the Government fulfill these

obligations.

Number four is poverty and economic and social rights. This

is a very serious problem, and poverty is of course one of the underlying issues

affecting human rights.

One obvious example is demobilization. For a poor

country Cambodia still spends an unreasonably high percentage of its budget on

the military. However, the minister of finance had a point when he said to me

that the military budget is also a social budget. It pays for the uniforms, the

shoes, the food of the people in the army.

This also concerns the police.

It's been pointed out to me that there is too much police in this country. The

question is how do you reallocate these means to other programs, such as health,

social and education programs.

If you compare Cambodia to other of the

poorest countries in the world, there are other countries that are doing better

in fighting poverty. In Cambodia the gap between a minority of rich or very rich

people and the mass of the population is growing. With very limited resources it

therefore becomes even more important how you allocate these means.

On

the issue of poverty reduction I will insist very much not only on the

responsibility of the local authorities, but also on that of the international

community. It is true that Cambodia is heavily dependent on foreign aid, but if

you look at it at a per capita basis, there are many other countries who receive

more aid than Cambodia. I will certainly plead that more can be

done.

Finally, there are women and children's issues. Here again the

problems are enormous. Trafficking, exploitation, including sexual exploitation

and child labor are some of the issues.

Post: What is your overall

impression?

Leuprecht: My overall impression is that the task to be carried out is

enormous. But that makes it even more important to tackle it.

It is also

important to build trust and confidence in the society. I'm struck by the high

degree of mistrust and not only mistrust to and among the political players. It

is also important to build trust to the institutions. Many people for instance

don't trust the judiciary because it doesn't work. And also trust between the

Government and civil society. They must not be seen to be

adversaries.

Post: How do you estimate the Government's willingness to

act on these issues?

Leuprecht: In all fairness, I would say that I think there is a degree

of willingness. I would add probably a varying degree of willingness, depending

on whom you talk to. On the other hand there may still be some old schemes of

thinking around. However, this is possible to overcome.

Post: How can

you in your position help to overcome this?

Leuprecht: I'm trying to have a frank and open dialogue with

everybody. Another thing that I think should be promoted in this country is the

belief or trust in independence. That something independent can exist, be it

independent institutions or independent persons.

The tendency to label

everybody is extremely strong. They even tell you judge so-and-so is CPP and

judge so-and-so is Funcinpec. That is another thing that must be overcome. I

think the political institutions themselves should help to create independent

institutions. The National Election Committee, for instance, can only be

credible if it is independent.

Post: What it the importance of a Khmer

Rouge trial?

Leuprecht: The KR trial was raised in most of my conversations. One

thing that I did say in these conversations is that in the parliamentary debate

about the draft law they have to make sure that the end product is really in

line with the agreements that was reached a few months ago between [UN

Undersecretary-General] Hans Corell and the Government. I think that's very,

very important.

Post: After the shooting incident in Phnom Penh on

November 24, the Government has set up an interministerial committee to detect

and combat terrorism. What do you think of such a committee?

Leuprecht: We did not discuss this point during my meetings, but we

did discuss the incident. Also, I met a number of detainees in PJ prison who

were arrested in connection with the incident. One thing that struck me is that

there are some people who say that they were arrested in connection with the

incident but a week before it happened.

But about the committee, one will

have to see what it is like, what it is supposed to do and what its powers are.

Immediately upon arrival I said that a serious inquiry should be conducted into

the incident, and that the principles of due process, rule of law and fair trial

must be respected.

I have also said that if and when confronted with

terrorism, a government should never adopt the same methods as the terrorists.

If it does so, it undermines itself. My feeling was that the Government is

preserving a cool head in this case, but I will certainly follow very closely

what will happen.

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