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.
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.
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.
of continuation of the office is needed to maintain the confidence of the
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
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'
Second Prime Minister Hun Sen was scheduled to meet with
Boutros-Ghali in New York to discuss the issue as the Post went to
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
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
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
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
"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
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".
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
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.
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
"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
"Those opposing the government line on an issue could derive
some legitimacy from the Centre's presence. The government does not relish
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.
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.