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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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,
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.