After a long career in Cambodia, including four years as head of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Christophe Peschoux said this week he will step down at the end of April to take a senior position with the office in Geneva.
Although Peschoux said in an interview yesterday with The Post that he brought cooperation between his office and the government to “unprecedented levels”, senior officials called for his ouster last year.
Prime Minister Hun Sen made the appeal during a meeting in October with visiting UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, following a request to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay in August and a public warning from Minister of Foreign Affairs Hor Namhong in July.
Nevertheless, Peschoux yesterday defended the work of his office, including its public statements on pressing human rights concerns, and gave insight into his layered relationship with the government.
“Human rights work is not a cocktail party, it’s a struggle,” he said.
Peschoux, who also spent seven years investigating human rights abuses for OHCHR in the 1990s, will be replaced on an interim basis by his deputy, James Heenan, on May 2.
This is an edited transcript by Thomas Miller.
Why are you leaving your position at the end of next month?
I have been offered a new position in OHCHR in Geneva. This is not a sudden decision.... I began to apply for positions in April last year, for family reasons because my children are going to enter university next year and I want to be in Europe at that time.
In the meanwhile, [there is also] the tension with the Government as a reason over the statements that we issued in July.
One was my comment to The Cambodia Daily, in response to their request, regarding the illegal extradition of the two Thai Red Shirts [activists wanted by Thailand for suspected involvement in a bombing].
That created a lot of irritation in the Foreign Ministry. You remember the public letter from the foreign minister against me warning me that my position would be reconsidered if I did it again.
A week later there was another statement, issued this time by the spokesperson of the high commissioner in Geneva, in relation to the human rights implication of the [opposition Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker] Mu Sochua defamation case [brought by Prime Minister Hun Sen].
That was quite a fairly straightforward statement, but I think the combination of these statements have provoked the anger of the government, probably of the Prime Minister, and as a result they have requested my removal to the [UN] high commissioner [for human rights Pillay]. That was in August, and the high commissioner declined on the ground that there was not sufficiently good reasons for that, and expressed complete confidence and support in me.
The matter rose again when the secretary general met the Prime Minister here and the Prime Minister brought the matter up during the meeting and requested the secretary general to remove me, and the secretary general stood by the high commissioner position.
As a result I have been internally [persona non grata] in the sense that there was a note sent [by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs] to all government officials in the ministries to cease to recognise me and cease cooperation with me. And that was in November. Since then all government officials have been reluctant to meet me.
Cooperation with the office has more or less continued. In some ways it has been affected, but we have been able to reestablish in most cases normal cooperation. But the instruction was clear: You don’t meet Peschoux.
And they have not met me, which, as you can understand, has made my life quite difficult because I have premised the approach and the work of this office on dialogue and cooperation.
Then there is this political logic ... that it was time for me to move. So these factors accelerated the decision process but [have] not affected it significantly. In the course of the year I would have left irrespective of whether there were tensions with the government.
You came in as head of the office here in 2007. How did you build up trust with the Government?
I have worked many years in this country and in this region, and I have learned a number of things. Face is important here – public face. And public controversy, public confrontation, is counterproductive.
The second lesson is that we do not have, as a human rights institution, the means of protection. So the question is how can you contribute to improve the situation of human rights?
And the response to that question is that you have to engage with the powers that be.
[Another] lesson is that in Cambodia as in other countries of the region ... a lot of things can be said if they are said between four eyes. In other words, confidential discussion of issues of concern is much better accepted if it is done with a care not to make your interlocutor lose face.
So having learned these lessons when I arrived here, I explained to my interlocutors in the Government that I wouldn’t dialogue with them through the media.
But I’ve told them at the same time, we will have confidential dialogue, but the condition is that your door has to be open and that you are willing to listen to what we are saying, because when we will be bringing issues of concern to you, they will be well-documented; they will be well thought-out; we will have conducted a legal analysis; and we will come up with ideas for a solution.
These were the main elements of my approach, and we have built relationships with various institutions in the Government on these premises. And I think so far it has worked well. It has not worked everywhere. But frankly after four years of testing this approach in this country, I can’t see any other way to further our protection objectives and to have an impact, because what we are after is to have an impact.
Against this background, I have not completely abandoned public advocacy. But we have used public advocacy only when we feel that there is either no dialogue going on with the Government, because there is no willingness to address these issues, or there is an emergency situation and we have no time to engage in dialogue.
What do you think are the biggest successes of your approach?
I always quote our prison programme, because this is a programme that we have jointly developed with the Ministry of Interior. This is a programme where there is a willingness to reform the institution but there is a lack of know-how.
We had visited several prisons, and a recurring theme coming out from prisoners, but also from staff and the directors of the prisons, was that prisoners were hungry, they didn’t eat their full.
So we wrote that up with the Ministry of Interior and persuaded them that there was a need to increase the food allocation that they received. The ministry accepted [the proposal] to develop the daily food allocation from 1500 to 2800 [riel].
A second example was the question of ill treatment in prison and abuse by detainees on other detainees. The prison authorities had delegated some of the disciplinary authority to prisoners, to groups of prisoners that were organised in the prison, which they called prisoner management cells. This goes against basic international standards on the management of prisons because it creates a state within the state, and then a lot of abuse happened which you can’t control.
We have highlighted the problem, they have understood it, and they have reformed that system.... and the number of abuse [cases] has decreased. Not disappeared – prisons are prisons – but there has been a significant improvement.
You emphasise confidential dialogue, but is there something lost, in terms of accountability, if the public is not aware of Government commitments?
Yes, of course this is a risk. But this is part of this ‘gentleman agreement’. Confidentiality, we regard it as a tool for dialogue, not as a shield for inaction. So that’s the basic premise. So as long as confidential dialogue leads to action – to corrective action and to progress – we engage.
But if we experience that confidentiality is being abused for doing nothing, then we have to reassess our engagement and decide whether we are going to speak publicly on this issue or withdraw our cooperation.
The Government named you specifically – and not the OHCHR office – as the problem. Why do you think they singled you out?
Let’s go first to the three main allegations that have been levelled against me to justify the fact that I’ve been shunned.
The first one is that I don’t cooperate with the Government. Everything I’ve done in the past four years shows the contrary. I have brought the level of cooperation of this office with the Government to unprecedented levels.
Second is that I am the spokesperson for the opposition. Everybody who is familiar with my work knows that it is totally independent. I am not in bed with the Government. I am not in bed with civil society. I am not in bed with the donor community. We are totally independent.... And this may not be appreciated. But ... we are a UN institution with a human rights mandate. And I am very clear about what my role is in this country. And my role is to talk to everybody.
But we have reached a situation in this country whereby any public criticism expressed vis a vis policies or practices are immediately tarred with the opposition brush.
The third factor is that I overstepped my mandate. Again, the high commissioner has been very clear, the secretary general has been very clear: We have a public advocacy mandate, as UN and as OHCHR. I have been exercising this public advocacy mandate with a lot of tact, I think, in a very courteous manner and as diplomatically as I could.
But sometimes we have to speak out, we have to say things, we can’t remain silent. That’s part of being a human rights and a UN voice in a country where we are dealing with difficult issues. There are issues [over which] we can’t simply remain silent because silence becomes a complicity.
In my own personal and also professional view as a human rights activist and official in the UN, that’s the bottom line. We have a moral authority and sometimes we have to exercise this moral authority.
Is there [a personal] element related to my work in the past ... when I was here from 1993-99. It’s possible. I was in charge of the investigation unit of this office. I have investigated hundreds of various human rights violations – killings, extrajudicial executions, disappearances, torture, rape and so on and so forth. I have been a very scrupulous investigator, and not all of the cases that I have documented during this period have been dismissed, because the investigation was properly done and all the facts were well-established.
So am I a reminder of some of the crimes, some of the human rights violations of this period? Possibly.
Why do you think the Government is particularly sensitive to public criticism from the UN? Do you think it dates to the 1980s, when the UN seat was filled by the Khmer Rouge-led coalition?
There is a UN dimension. The UN was involved in the war against Cambodia from 1979-91 and the signing of the Paris Agreements in the sense that the UN was used by the powers exercising their authority through it to pursue the Cold War.
This has had a very detrimental affect on Cambodia and on its population because Cambodia was coming out of the Khmer Rouge period completely ... shattered, people’s lives were shattered, there was no one, there was no resource, and the current party here in power was reconstructed by the Vietnamese and tried to put this country together.
Not only were they not provided international assistance from the West but they were besieged by the West and by China at the time during this period of Cold War. So they were trying to rebuild society in the face of an aggression, in the face of war, and that has left deep scars, I think, in the psyche, in the memory of many in the current leadership.
I think perhaps it would be a good idea for the UN one day to do what the UN did in Rwanda and to humbly apologize to the Cambodian people for the way that it had been used. I think it would be useful. That may help turn the page of this sad chapter of the UN history in this country. I think it would be a human thing to do.