Observers yesterday characterised a threat by Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon to close the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) field office in Cambodia as a dangerous act of brinkmanship, with many calling for donors to take a stand.
OHCHR’s memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the government expired last December. Since then, the government has been demanding a controversial rewording of the memorandum placing an emphasis on what it views as an established diplomatic doctrine of non-interference.
Earlier this month, in response to remarks by OHCHR country representative Wan-Hea Lee reported in the media, Sokhon issued a letter saying the human rights office’s activities were “not legitimate” while the MoU was expired.
Lee later said she shared the government’s disappointment with the way her comments were reported.
Then, on Friday, Sokhon issued a fresh salvo, writing an open letter to UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein threatening to shutter OHCHR’s Cambodia office if it did not sign the MoU by December 30.
Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson yesterday described Sokhon’s letter as presenting “a challenge to the entire UN mandate on human rights”.
“The UN and government donors need to fight tenaciously to defend this office because Cambodia’s rights record has taken a huge dive for the worse,” Robertson said via email. “The loss of the office would be a disaster for Cambodian civil society, tearing down the last international barrier to Hun Sen’s predatory attacks on anyone who dares raise their voice against his schemes.
“[The government is] playing both a short and a long game, aiming to either get the office out now or setting it up so it is easier to get the office out later.”
Andrea Giorgetta, director of the Southeast Asia desk for the International Federation for Human Rights, echoed Robertson’s call for the international community to speak out, and said that the loss of the OHCHR country office “would have disastrous consequences for the Cambodian people”.
Sam Zarifi, regional director for the International Commission of Jurists, said in an email that Sokhon’s letter was “a pretty blatant attempt at bullying the international community” into muting its criticism of the government.
“It’s crucial for the entire UN mechanism and its Member States . . . [to] stand up to the Cambodian government’s bullying,” Zarifi said, while noting that closing the OHCHR field office would do little to hamper the UN’s ability to monitor the human rights situation in Cambodia.
Meanwhile, OHCHR spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani said discussions with the government were ongoing: “The presence of OHCHR in any country depends on the agreement of the host country and we are looking forward to continuing to discuss with the Government the continuing presence of OHCHR in the country.”