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Cabinet not told of plan to ditch to ditch UNCHR

Cabinet not told of plan to ditch to ditch UNCHR

T HE Prime Minister's request for the United Nations Center for Human Right

(UNCHR) in Cambodia to be "phased out" was not approved by the Cabinet,

according to a senior government official.

"The decision to send the

letter did not go through the Cabinet. In fact, nobody in the Cabinet knew it

was being sent," said the official, who would not be named.

From the

beginning, the Post has learned, both China and Indonesia opposed the Center's

Oct 1993 establishment in Cambodia.

Also Malaysia-which is chairing this

year's human rights commission-supported Cambodia's request to have references

to "threats against Parliamentarians" deleted from a February 1995 report by the

commission, sources said.

Sources say Malaysia officially approached both

Cambodia and the UN to have the office closed, and that Cambodia is trying to

form an ASEAN bloc to support its closure. Indonesia and Malaysia are

supporters, but Thailand is against, they say. Australia and the United States

are lobbying to keep the Centre open.

Senior officials in the Ministries

of Interior and Foreign Affairs would not comment on the matter.

The

First and Second Prime Ministers made the request in a letter sent on Mar 15 -

the day the ICORC meeting of foreign aid donors in Paris ended - to UN Secretary

General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

The letter has been greeted with dismay by

human rights workers and at least one Phnom Penh embassy.

"The closure of

the office will be against the wishes of those who have provided support for the

Cambodian government," an Australian Embassy spokesman said.

"Assurances

of continuation of the office is needed to maintain the confidence of the

international community."

However, the embassies of Japan - Cambodia's

biggest donor - and the United States said their government did not have any

official position on the issue.

Japanese First Secretary Masato Iso, when

asked whether aid to Cambodia could be affected, said: "It is not our

government's position to put any conditionalities on development

aid."

The international human rights NGO Human Rights Watch/Asia - which

described the centre as an "important safeguard" for both human rights and Khmer

NGOs working to protect them - condemned the Prime Ministers'

letter.

Second Prime Minister Hun Sen was scheduled to meet with

Boutros-Ghali in New York to discuss the issue as the Post went to

press.

He earlier met with US Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord

and US Ambassador to Cambodia Charles Twining there, though what was discussed

has not been revealed.

On Mar 20, after the letter was made public, the

Ministry of Information issued a statement which said the government "highly

appreciates" the UNCHR's work.

"If the Secretary General and the UN

Center for Human Rights [headquarters] in Geneva find it necessary to have a

continued presence in Cambodia, we will have further discussions," the statement

continued.

The Prime Ministers' letter was dated Feb 28 but sent on Mar

15 via the local office of the UN Secretary-General's Representative in

Cambodia.

Some political observers believe the two-week delay in sending

it was a sign the Prime Ministers were waiting for the dust to settle after both

the annual session of the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva in early March

and ICORC in Paris.

The letter said that the UNCHR's "immediate tasks"

would be fulfilled by the end of the year, and that further work could be done

by staff visiting from Geneva.

It said human rights were now protected by

the constitution, the National Assembly's Human Rights commission and local

rights group.

The letter pledged continued cooperation with periodic

visits by the secretary General's Special Representative for Human Rights in

Cambodia, Australian judge Michael Kirby, saying: "Justice Kirby will continue

to be welcome in our midst..."

But, advocating a "non-resident role" for

the UNCHR, it said the government had made significant progress toward

stabilizing the human rights situation and re-establishing the rule of

law.

"The continued presence of the UN Centre for Human Rights makes it

appear to the world that the situation in Cambodia is still in crisis... This is

not good for investor or donor confidence.

Furthermore, we are finding that every charge against the Government, whether

real, imagined or exaggerated, receives the imprimatur of the United Nations

once it is received by the center as a complaint. Whilst the center is only

doing its job, it is being used to make it seem as if there are a large number

of UN-accepted charges against the government, whereas the real number is

negligible."

Rejecting any suggestion of a conflict between the UNCHR and

the government, the Prime Ministers expressed their hope that "the transition

will be as uncontroversial as possible."

The Prime Ministers' views in

the letter did not reflect Cambodia's public position at the UN Commission on

Human Rights session in Geneva.

The commission produced a resolution

requesting the Secretary General ensure the "enhanced functioning of the

operational presence in Cambodia of the Center for Human rights".

Last

November, in a UN General Assembly annual session, Cambodian ambassador to the

UN Prince Sisowath Sirirath said: "The presence of the Center is vital to our

survival because Cambodia needs assistance, guidance and recommendation in this

field for along time to come..."

At that session, Cambodia co-sponsored a

resolution which was exactly the same as the later UN Commission resolution in

March.

Some observers, who view this sharp about-face in policy as

extremely significant, point toward a host of UNCHR activities which the

government is widely believed to have been unhappy with.

They include

the center's investigations and submissions on Battambang secret prisons, the

murder of newspaper editors, draft immigration and press laws, and the conduct

of military personnel.

One observer, who requested anonymity, said the

center had been set up to encourage NGOs, freedom of the press and political

pluralism.

"Unfortunately, the government could see that as indulging in

opposition politics. The concept of the center is laudable, but it was bound to

run into political problems.

"Especially since the coup last year, the

government has been concentrating on consolidating power and suppressing

dissent.

"Those opposing the government line on an issue could derive

some legitimacy from the Centre's presence. The government does not relish

that."

He said that, while the government had legal obligations under

Paris Peace Agreements - which established the UNCHR for an unspecified period

of time - "finally, it is the government's right to decide if they want the

office or not".

Twelve local human rights and other NGOs, meanwhile, have

written to the government and the UN urging the centre be maintained.

"We

are functioning under great pressure and the closure of the centre will be

disastrous for the centre will be disastrous for us," said an official working

with the human rights group LICADHO.

"We would feel very vulnerable if

the center were to leave."

The official detailed four instances of visits

to LICADHO in the last few months by people claiming to be from the Ministry of

Interior but carrying no official letters, who asked for personal details about

staff in Phnom Penh and the provinces.

Other NGOs like Vigilance, Khmer

Institute of Democracy and Ponleu Khmer also reported similar incidents last

month, according to Human Rights Watch/Asia.

First Prime Minister Prince

Norodom Ranariddh, on his return from ICORC on Mar 20, said Cambodia was in the

"normalization" process and did not need the office.

"We are merely

asking that the mandate of the centre should not be extended," he said, in

reference to the centre currently being funded up to the end of the year, with

further funding proposed for the future.

Asked if the National Assembly

should have voted on such a move, he said there was no need to consult MPs. "The

government has the right to ask the UN to open an office and it also has the

right not to renew its contract."

Neither UNCHR nor UN High Commission on

Refugees were invited to ICORC, and human rights were never put on the agenda -

rebuffed, according to sources, by Japan, which was in charge of the agenda.

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