Within hours of her arrival in the Kingdom, the UN Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia, Rhona Smith, held a closed-door meeting on Monday with civil society organisations.
She was briefed about alleged “restrictions” to freedom of the press and public gatherings, and of NGO activities being “monitored” by Cambodian authorities.
Welcoming her arrival in Cambodia, government spokesman Phay Siphan called on the Special Rapporteur to be a “partner” with Cambodia and report only the “truth” about the development of human rights in the Kingdom, rather than “attack the government”.
He said understanding between the Cambodian government and the UN had been strengthened through the recent extension of the mandate of the UN human rights office in Cambodia.
Hence, Siphan expressed hope that Smith would write a report reflecting “the truth” in Cambodia and not act as a judge.
At the meeting with civil society organisations, which was held at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Phnom Penh, Smith is said to have listened to their “concerns”, said an NGO official who attended.
During her 11-day visit to Cambodia Smith is set to meet senior government officials, representatives of civil society and members of the diplomatic community. She will conclude her visit next Thursday and present her report to the UNHRC in September next year.
Rhona Smith told The Post on Monday that she is still awaiting finalisation of her schedule to meet with Cambodian ministries. It is still unclear if her meetings include one with Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“I requested meetings with a range of government ministries and awaiting the finalisation of the schedule."
“I will also meet with representatives of the diplomatic community, and civil society organisations [that are] working with human rights and with specific interests in the areas of this mission, which focuses specifically on human rights and the Sustainable Development Goals,” she said.
An official of a civil society organisation who joined the meeting with Smith on Monday morning said they complained to Smith about the development of human rights in Cambodia.
Requesting anonymity, he said: “I and leaders of other civil society organisations met Smith this morning and told her about our concerns regarding the development of human rights. We focused our discussions mainly on the restrictions on our basic freedoms and rights.
“For instance, we informed her that as far as we know, when we gathered for a workshop, even though it was held at a private venue, we were spied on by government agents or monitored by the local authorities. And this emotionally affected the participants."
He said Smith had previously taken up the issues and challenges facing human rights activists and their concerns over restrictions to press freedom with the government in the form of recommendations.
However, he said he was unsure if the government would “change its attitude” to civil societies despite Smith’s discussions with it.
Rhona Smith, he believes, will again include the concerns of civil society organisations in her report and articulate and discuss their concerns with the government.
“We think that Smith will include the problems of civil society organisations in her statement or she will articulate and discuss those concerns with the government."
“In the past, we saw that she understood our concerns. So the civil society organisations are hopeful that, in her discussions with the government, Smith will find solutions to our concerns and the authorities too will pay attention,” he stressed.
Stressing on the government’s view in terms of Smiths’s official visit to Cambodia, Siphan said: “She is a partner of the Cambodian government in human rights development. What she is not, is a policewoman, lawyer or judge to work on these tasks.
“The government’s stance is basically that we have volunteered without coercion to sign the Memorandum of Understanding between Cambodia and the UN over human rights issues,” he said.
Siphan called on Smith not to write a report that merely attacks the government since she had previously claimed the occurrence of human rights violations in Cambodia.
“The Cambodian government is not demanding that she write positively about Cambodia. We only want her to write a fair, balanced and truthful report. Secondly, as our partner, her report should not be turned into an instrument to attack the government."
“Normally, she brings the human rights issue to discuss with the government which is a formal mechanism and originates from public power, and we will have the chance to explain our position to her."
“Smith cannot act as the ruler to control Cambodia as she is just a mediator. She should not put herself in a position of being a person that incites the NGOs to attack the government,” he stressed.