During his last mission to Cambodia before he leaves office at the end of the
year, UN Special Representative for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg spoke
to Anette Marcher about the possibility of a Khmer Rouge trial, his
relationship with the Cambodian government, current human rights issues and
continued UN presence in Cambodia.
Post: How would you characterize the human rights situation in Cambodia
Hammarberg: There are still many deep problems, but we are now in a
phase where it should be possible to build structures and educate people. In
that sense we are currently in a test period - testing the political willingness
to do something about human rights.
Thomas Hammarberg . . . Cambodia currently in a test period
Previously, the sharp political
contradictions made it difficult to carry out necessary reforms. Now, political
stability makes it possible to put a heavy emphasis on improving the judiciary
and the legal framework, educating and reforming the police, etc. Cambodia
should now be in a reform period.
Post: What are the most important
human rights issues facing Cambodia today?
Hammarberg: The number one problem is the impunity. It is necessary to
hold responsible people accountable for their actions. The problems in the
functioning of the justice system holds repute throughout the society, and there
are signs that people have little respect for the judiciary. The sense of
justice in the Cambodian society is undermined and it will take some time to
Post: How can that be done?
Hammarberg: First of all you need a good legal framework that now
suffers from rather serious gaps - a criminal code, a criminal procedure code,
civil law and civil process code.
There is also a need to go through the
courts themselves. The body that is supposed to oversee the functioning of the
justice system, the Supreme Council, must begin to work. It is too passive today
and its absence is greatly felt.
Second, I think there must be more
political support for the authority of the courts. One problem is that when the
courts try to bring military persons to trial, they meet opposition from
military ranks. A very clear political signal needs to be sent out that this is
not acceptable, with clear examples of intervention against responsible
Finally, it is absolutely necessary to increase the salaries
of judges and prosecutors and crack down on any tendency of
Post: During your more than three years as Special
Representative for Human Rights in Cambodia, what are the most important
improvements you have seen?
Hammarberg: There have been some important law changes. The amendment
of Article 51 of the Civil Servant Act - though still not totally clear - is an
important step. We also have some good draft laws now, for instance on land
The problem of illegal logging, which also had an impact on the
rights of indigenous peoples, has not been completely eliminated, but at least
reduced dramatically. And the efforts to collect weapons - though again not
complete - have also had some positive effects.
But I think the most
positive progress is more in the area of awareness and knowledge about human
rights. I notice more awareness about human rights problems than before. This is
the first step - that people know what is right and wrong.
human rights NGOs are really quite competent and mature. It is quite an asset
for a country like Cambodia to have these well-informed and well-intended
Post: What setbacks or disappointments have you
Hammarberg: That so few cases of politically related killings have
been brought to conclusion.
The grenade attack in 1997 was the kind of
crime where justice should have been given absolute priority. The investigations
should have been serious and transparent with constant reports to the public
about what was going on. Very little of that has happened, of
Post: One issue that has been of great importance to you is
the creation of a trial to deal with Khmer Rouge atrocities. How do you view the
current situation in the negotiations?
Hammarberg: The positive [thing] in Prime Minister Hun Sen's statement
[at the airport last week] was the signal that the Cambodian government is
prepared for further discussions. So the door is not closed. But there are still
outstanding matters which were not clarified by the Prime Minister's
I hope that by the end of the year, the UN and the Cambodian
government can reach an agreement on the operational text, which is the text
that will go to the National Assembly and the Senate.
And the mere fact
that we have slowly proceeded in the discussion of a Khmer Rouge trial is
positive. I'm sure, now, that something will come out of it in the
Post: How do you feel about the contents of the US-brokered
compromise that may be in the making?
Hammarberg: The only thing that really matters in the end is whether
the process has integrity and independence. My advice back to [UN headquarters
in] New York has been that one should not discuss the elements of the trial one
by one. Instead, one should look at the totality, whether it fits as a whole and
whether it will ensure integrity and independence
Post: Some believe
that the high-profile Zacklin delegation in August was, if not a mistake, then
the wrong thing at the wrong time?
Hammarberg: The issue of a Khmer Rouge trial is complex, even more so
since the idea developed of a mixed tribunal. For that purpose, I welcomed the
decision to involve the UN top lawyers.
But my concern was that it took a
bit of time before we followed up on the Prime Minister's invitation in May.
That was unfortunate and I have actually apologized to him for the delay.
Post: How would you characterize your relationship with the Cambodian
Hammarberg: I have had a constructive working relation with several
ministries. The confrontations have been with the Prime Minister, especially on
cases of political killings and especially in the period after July 1997. But I
believe that he respects my sincerity and honesty.
Post: UN Representative
Lakhan Mehrotra recently called Hun Sen "a champion of democracy". Do you agree
Hammarberg: I avoid giving marks to my
Post: What do you see as your most important achievement
during your time as Special Representative for Human Rights?
Hammarberg: Achievements in the fields of human rights is very seldom
one big splash. Also, I see myself as part of the UNHCHR office.
the UN operation here has helped highlight the importance of human rights. And
we have also contributed to the fact that we are now discussing seriously a
Khmer Rouge trial.
Post: What would you have done differently?
Hammarberg: Not really anything. Of course, as an outsider I have
misjudged the issues sometimes, but that is inevitable.
I do, however,
regret that I did not manage to organize a speedy response to the invitation in
late May for a discussion on the mixed tribunal. That process has been slower
than I wanted and hoped for.
Post: How do you see the future role of
the UN Center for Human Rights?
Hammarberg: There will be two aspects. One will be to help in advisory
form with judicial reform and perhaps act as go-between between this and other
Then, there will be more work with children's and women's
rights, prostitution and trafficking. In respect to trafficking, the time has
come to relate more to the issue on a regional basis, and the new Director of
the Center will also be appointed Regional Rapporteur on trafficking to UN High
Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson.
Post: You have been
attacked for playing down the Center's criticism of human rights abuses in order
to gain goodwill for the negotiations of a Khmer Rouge trial?
Hammarberg: The two are part of the same picture. It's important to
break the culture of impunity and the Khmer Rouge stands for that, too. There
has been no trade-off between the two.
Post: The UN's political office
in Phnom Penh may have to close by the end of the year. Why was it not possible
to negotiate a solution where both UN offices remained in function?
Hammarberg: I have not been involved in the discussions about the
political office. The Prime Minister stated to [UN Secretary-General] Kofi Annan
that he wanted to phase out the political office and in the same meeting agreed
to extend the charter for the Center with two more years. But we haven't sold
out one office to be able to stay in the country ourselves.
What consequences would closing down the political office have for the
negotiations about a Khmer Rouge trial?
Hammarberg: What the UN has to ensure is that in our total structure
there is competence to deal with this matter. If the Center does not deal with
it and if my replacement is delayed, we have to find another way to handle it.
What matters is continuity.
But I'm not too worried about that. There is
intention in New York to sort this out.