In the first meeting between Prime Minister Hun Sen and a United Nations High Commissioner
of Human Rights since 2002, Hun Sen pledged on May 18 to make himself more accessible
to UN officials working in Cambodia, according to his personal secretary, Eang Sophalat.
"Louise Arbour, the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights, came to Cambodia
to improve the relationship between the UN human rights office and the government,"
Sophalat told the Post.
"She met Samdech Hun Sen and asked for his cooperation on the issue of human
rights and he agreed. Now, if there are human rights institutions of the UN that
do things to impact the government, Hun Sen or one of his representatives can meet
with the UN commissioner."
The meeting comes against a backdrop of criticism from human rights groups and stands
in contrast to the legacy of bitter disputes between Hun Sen and the last three UN
Special Representatives of the Secretary-General for Human Rights in Cambodia, most
recently Kenyan human rights lawyer Yash Ghai.
Last month Hun Sen was quoted as saying, among other derogatory remarks, "I
don't like Ghai... " and "I am leaving [Ghai] a message... I refuse to
meet you, I refuse to meet you for ever."
The verbal broadsides came in response to Ghai's first country report that stated
"I have been quite struck by the enormous centralization of power, not in the
government but in one individual. I have talked to judges, politicians and all sorts
of people and everyone is so scared... Everything depends on one individual and this
is not really a precondition under which human rights can flourish."
In a May 18 phone interview from Bangkok, Anselmo Lee, executive director of the
Asia Forum on Human Rights and Development, said the international rights community
is hoping for a positive outcome but wary of Hun Sen's history of diplomatic legerdemain.
"I believe there were two issues on the table today: the Khmer Rouge Trial and
the relationship between the government and the UN office on human rights in regard
to the harsh criticism of Yash Ghai," said Lee.
"It is our hope that the outcome is positive and Hun Sen will agree to meet
Yash Ghai. His role is to assess and advise on human rights issues, it is a benefit
for the government. But [Hun Sen] is not willing to talk to people who criticize
Lao Mong Hay, senior researcher at the Asian Human Rights Commission, echoed Lee's
assessment of Hun Sen's reaction to criticism.
"Attacking, threatening and arresting critics or opponents are Prime Minister
Hun Sen's well-known hallmark, especially when he has not gained full international
legitimacy," Mong Hay wrote in response to written questions.
"When criticisms touch sensitive issues that can affect and erode his powers,
he normally jumps and uses abusive language in his verbal attacks But these attacks
and the abusive language used simply reflect his lack of full self-confidence, his
intolerance of freedom of expression, his monopoly of truth, and also his lack of
proper education when young."
But Cambodian People's Party parliamentarian Cheam Yeab defended Hun Sen and said
the UN did not understand the human rights situation in Cambodia.
"They [the UN] have never gone to the provinces. They have just come to Phnom
Penh and made the report about the human rights situation," Yeab said. "Ghai
saw Cambodia as a very dark country."
Yeab said Hun Sen had been working hard to improve the human rights situation in
Cambodia, and was angry about Ghai's unflattering report on Cambodia's human rights
Om Yen Tieng, chairman of the government's human rights committee and an adviser
to Hun Sen, said the government's dissatisfaction was directed at Ghai specifically
and not the UN.
"Cambodia is a member of the UN and a sovereign nation. We aren't going to talk
about a good or bad relationship [with the UN]," he said. "We aren't happy
with the human rights report which was done by one individual. Yash Ghai is not the
Hun Sen's assurance has some rights activists worried that the cycle of empty threats
followed by equally empty promises will be prolonged and little will be done to improve
the condition of human rights for Cambodian citizens.
Mong Hay said Arbour would have more power to influence Hun Sen if she had more backing
from Cambodia's donor countries; however, in the past donor countries had continued
to support Cambodia with financial aid in spite of its poor human rights record.
"Donors are more concerned about stability than human rights, democracy and
the rule of law in Cambodia," Mong Hay said.
"They would prefer to reform the government through amicable dialogue rather
"But they are divided, and their representatives have changed regularly resulting
in the loss of consistency and continuity in their stands on the issues of human
rights, democracy and the rule of law.
"Donors seem to feel that when Cambodians are economically better off thanks
to this aid, they will demand and exercise their human rights more.
"But this approach may not work in Cambodia, as it has not in Singapore or Malaysia.
"In Cambodia power politics control every aspect of government from the King
down to village chiefs."
A spokesman for the UN High Commissioner said Arbour was too busy to speak to the