ALTHOUGH he sounded notes of cautious optimism during his
last visit here, the UN human rights envoy, as well as
local rights workers, say they remain concerned at the
continuing culture of impunity in Cambodia.
"Serious crimes with a political connotation,
including assassinations, have still not been
clarified," Thomas Hammarberg, Special
Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Human
Rights in Cambodia, told the General Assembly Nov 6 in a
The UN has documented 34 killings in August and September
of this year, according to a report Hammarberg released
as he concluded his 11th visit to Cambodia Oct 30. The 34
new deaths make a total of nearly 200 that the UN has
investigated, documented and reported to the government
in the past 20 months (see box).
Rights workers say none have been seriously and
thoroughly investigated by authorities; only a handful of
arrests have been made and none have resulted in
The new UN report includes two persons killed during the
demonstrations, and 24 mostly unidentified bodies found
in or near Phnom Penh "part of a surge that
coincided with the suppression of opposition protests by
the security authorities".
Although the UN said it could not link the 24 deaths
mostly violent ones to the crackdowns, it noted that up
to 75 people have been missing since demonstrations ended
"Our main concern is those unaccounted for,"
said one rights worker. "There are people out there
that still don't know what happened to their loved
The report noted that 47 named persons remained missing
and not known to be arrested, including four monks, while
six people were arrested but never accounted for. In
addition, the UN says that 22 cases of unidentified
persons being arrested as "highly credible".
The report also details injuries sustained during that
period: at least 77 injured, including at least 18 monks
and one nun. Sixteen people sustained bullet wounds,
including two monks. About half those injured by bullets
were hit in the upper body.
Yet despite the alarming figures in his report,
Hammarberg was upbeat about his recent meetings with the
government at his Oct 30 press conference.
"The atmosphere was positive," he said. "I
hope this more constructive atmosphere will
He noted an encouraging accomplishment: the National
Human Rights Commission signed a memo with the UN rights
office here pledging closer cooperation, including a
visit from two independent UN experts to improve criminal
NHRC chair Om Yienting said he welcomed the memo and the
spirit of cooperation. He said the experts would
"work with my committee to first, reform and
strengthen the system of justice in Cambodia, and second,
to improve the efficiency of crime investigation".
However, two other independent UN experts have already
concluded that the government could undertake proper
investigations; political considerations, not technical
ones, appears to be the problem.
"The existing system itself is capable of dispensing
objective justice, provided it functions independently...
it is clear that the Judiciary, the Public Prosecutor's
Branch and the Police have not been displaying...
functional independence," the report read.
The two international experts visited Cambodia in April
1998, releasing their report in May. They assessed
government investigations of the March 30, 1997 grenade
attack on a political rally and the executions of
opposition officials after July 1997's coup.
"The United Nations experts were struck by the fact
that political homicide engendered no serious attempts at
investigation," they wrote.
The government maintains that efforts at investigation
are still continuing. "We have never closed any
case," Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak
"Every investigation is still open... sometimes the
investigations take 10 or 15 years, even in the US,"
he noted, pledging: "Criminals will not escape from
the net of law."
"The investigation of past crimes is very slow
because we want to work on the basis of the rule of law
and want the cases to be completed before [bringing them
to] the court," Om Yienting explained. "We want
the work to be done perfectly."
Hammarberg has repeatedly pressed the government to give
more concrete signals that crimes must not go unpunished.
"[T]here is... a need for the Government to give
higher priority to this problem [impunity]," he told
the General Assembly.
However, local rights workers worry that the flip side of
impunity might be hasty prosecutions or even coerced
confessions. Hammarberg's annual written report to the
General Assembly notes ominous findings on police
"[I]nterviews with several hundred detainees and
prisoners indicate that at least one suspect out of five
or six appears to have been beaten or tortured during
interrogation in police custody. The data also indicate
that 92 percent of the interviewees who were interrogated
in police custody had confessed their imputed offense...
The courts rely heavily on the police reports which are
based primarily on these confessions."
Om Yienting acknowledged the problem, noting: "Now
we are trying to give advice to work hard on the issue
and... advise the police not to get false confessions
from the people they interrogate. If we get a false
confession it is another violation of human rights."
Hammarberg's written report, which was released Nov 6 and
will form the basis for a General Assembly resolution on
Cambodia in December, also covers prison conditions;
workers', women's, children's and minority rights; and
political violence and human rights related to the July
He wrote that the election campaign was marked by a
"pattern of discrimination against ethnic
Vietnamese" and that "equitable access to the
broadcast media did not exist in Cambodia".
And he noted that up to 17 killings and two attempted
killings in the pre-election period appeared to be
political; however, local rights workers say that serious
investigations are still altogether lacking.
But Hammarberg also told the General Assembly:
"Statements on this point [impunity] during my
recent visit by Second Prime Minister Hun Sen were
Hammarberg acknowledged that government promises may not
always translate into action.
"I'm not naive; I make a distinction between words
and deeds," he said Oct 30, but added: "It's my
job to be hopeful and constructive."
TALLY OF RECENT
Grenade attack March 30, 1997: 16
Extrajudicial executions, July 97-Apr 98: 83
Election-related violence, May-Aug 98: 49
Post-election violence, Aug-Oct 98: 34
Virtually all remain
uninvestigated. Not one has resulted in a conviction.
Reports and figures from the Special Representative of
the UN Secretary-General for Human Rights in Cambodia