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Government hits back at Rhona Smith’s UN comments

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Special Rapporteur on Cambodia Rhona Smith speaks in press conference in Cambodia in March 2018.

Government hits back at Rhona Smith’s UN comments

Senior government officials have hit back at the UN Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) Special Rapporteur on Cambodia Rhona Smith’s criticism of democracy in the Kingdom, with a government spokesman on Thursday comparing her to “a teacher in a classroom”.

The Cambodian Ambassador to the UN Office in Geneva, Ney Sam Ol, also said in response to Smith’s report that human rights and democracy should not be “weaponised”.

In a report to the 39th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Wednesday, Smith called into question the “genuineness” of the July 29 national election – polls in which the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won all 125 seats in parliament.

She said the election process in the Kingdom had been improving until the Supreme Court dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) – a move which also resulted in the banning of 118 of its politicians from active politics for five years.

“The country is, therefore, a de facto single party state. The multiparty liberal democracy envisaged by the Constitution is consigned to history for the next five years, the duration of the current parliament,” Smith told the council.

She claimed that the space for serious political debate had shrunk due to the use of laws to restrict debate and target the media, political opponents, civil society organisations and individuals through criminal charges.

Kem Sokha, the former leader of the CNRP, she claimed, is being held under house arrest, while others who have been released could be rearrested at any time.

The Special Rapporteur said the conviction of the Adhoc 5 “appears to be nothing more than a politically motivated persecution of civil society”.

“I encourage the government to create a more favourable environment for civil society to operate. This will be an important step in creating the space for free and informed debate around the pressing issues to promote Cambodia’s sustainable development and lasting peace,” Smith said.

Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan said Smith had not evaluated the “journey” Cambodians had been on and compared the Special Rapporteur to a teacher in a classroom.

“[Smith] regards Cambodia as a classroom and Cambodia’s leaders as her students. She should evaluate Cambodia based on the realities – where the Kingdom started its journey and where it is now,” Siphan said.

He defended the legal action taken against the CNRP by saying Cambodian democracy was strengthened through a balance with the rule of law.

“We strengthen democracy by balancing it with the rule of law. In building a nation, we need to strengthen the law, but when we strengthen the law, [Smith says] she wants human rights in an anarchic manner which we won’t accept.”

Siphan said that Smith had gone beyond the remit of the Special Rapporteur on human rights by criticising the recent elections.

“We won’t beg her to accept the result of the election and we won’t beg her to accept the new government. But more than 90 per cent of the population accepts the new government, so if she is against the new government, it means she takes 90 per cent of Cambodians as her enemy,” Siphan said.

Sam Ol said Smith’s report had ignored positive developments in Cambodia. He also questioned her method of gathering information, which he said was one-sided “cherry picking”.

“This cherry-picking approach, if left unchecked, will undoubtedly pose serious risks to the credibility of the [UNHRC’s] whole system of Special Procedures,” he said.

He said Smith should be proud to have seen more than 83 per cent of the Cambodian electorate turn out for the July elections and 20 political parties contesting in it.

Sam Ol said he wanted to hear all concerns raised based on mutual respect, with proper language and dignity, and that an insulting or humiliating attitude was unacceptable.

“The UN Human Rights Council is not a forum for the political propaganda of one political party at the expense of others. Human rights and democracy should not be politicised or weaponised. They should be applied in a fair and impartial manner,” he stressed.

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