I NTERNATIONAL Human Rights Day, a national holiday, was celebrated - sort of - with
a strong dose of politics this week.
Both Prime Ministers boycotted a planned ceremony to mark the day, as did the United
Nation's human rights representative to Cambodia, amid allegations of political bias
against the event's organizers.
The Cambodian Institute of Human Rights pulled out of the ceremony, complaining that
it had become "partisan" because only one of the Prime Ministers, Hun Sen,
had been invited to speak there.
The criticism appeared to be supported by the UN Special Representative on Human
Rights in Cambodia, Thomas Hammarberg, who had been expected to attend the Dec 10
"That arrangement [of the event] obviously turned into a political debate, and
I don't want to be part of that," Hammarberg, on a visit to Cambodia, told the
Post Dec 8.
"I've said as it smells, I won't be part of it. I don't want to be involved
in the politics of this country."
The UN Center for Human Rights (UNCHR) decided to withdraw a $1,000 donation toward
holding the ceremoney, other sources say.
First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh - belatedly invited to attend - said
he was too busy to do so. Hun Sen, meanwhile, withdrew his agreement to attend because
of the controversy.
The ceremony was held as planned at the Chatomuk Hall, after the organizers scurried
around trying to find a new guest speaker. Kem Sokha, chairman of the National Assembly's
human rights commission, agreed to speak but appeared less than enthusiatic on the
When he arrived at the Chatomuk on the morning of Dec 10, Sokha sneaked through the
garden, avoiding the red carpet lined with children laid on for him, and started
to go upstairs.
Caught on the stairway by the organizers, he was persuaded to go back down and along
the red carpet, to the children's applause.
The ceremony, attended by a few parliamentarians and foreign ambassadors, began at
8:30am with the playing of the national anthem. A group of monks then gave a blessing,
leaving promptly at 8:45.
Earlier, the discord began when only Hun Sen was invited to the ceremony by its organizing
committee, made up of representatives of about 30 local NGOs.
Chuon Mom Thol, president of CHARTO and chairman of the organizers, said the decision
to invite Hun Sen was made after five meetings of the committee.
"The meetings decided that last year [Prince Ranariddh] attended twice, so this
year ought to be the chance for [Hun Sen] to express his view about human rights,"
Other human rights workers, however, said both Prime Ministers were invited to last
year's ceremony, but only Ranariddh showed up.
Regardless, an invite was sent to only Hun Sen this year, and he replied that he
would be happy to attend.
Concerns were privately raised with the UNCHR about the lack of an invitation to
Ranariddh. The UNCHR, according to Thol, threatened to withdraw its funding unless
both Prime Ministers were invited.
An invitation was sent to Ranariddh on Dec 5 - exactly a month after one had been
sent to Hun Sen - but by this time the Cambodian Institute for Human Rights (CIHR)
had decided to pull out.
"We have come to realize, to our regret, that the event you are organizing for
December 10 will be partisan," CIHR director Kassie Neou wrote to Thol in a
Dec 4 letter.
"We believe that human rights is not a matter of individual political parties
or groups, but is for all human beings to enjoy and celebrate," he said, adding
"we must decline to join with you on December 10."
On Dec 6, Hun Sen reversed his agreement to attend the Chatomuk event, saying he
would celebrate Human Rights Day "at another place".
"Due to some negative impact on both Prime Ministers, Samdech Hun Sen would
like to leave the presidency and speech address on that occasion to Samdech Krom
Preah the First Prime Minister," Ho Sithy, Hun Sen's cabinet's chief, wrote
For his part, Ranariddh was unable to accept the invitation sent to him because he
already had prior committments, the prince's cabinet said.
Hun Sen, on the day, put on his own human rights ceremony in Takhmao, using the occasion
to slam the UNCHR.
While not naming the UN agency, he complained of "an organization" which
had threatened to withdraw funding as a way to get others to "comply with its
"Is this a human rights organization or a human rights violation organization?"
Benny Widyono, the UN Secretary General's Special Representative in Cambodia - who
spoke before Hun Sen at the Takhamao event - was full of praise for the Second Prime
Widyono hailed the recent granting of a peace prize to Hun Sen by the Korean-based
World Peace Corps.
Hun Sen fully deserved the prize for his "untiring efforts to work day and night
for peace and development", said Widyono, adding: "Let's give him a big
hand. Chey-yo [hurrah] Samdech Hun Sen!"
Meanwhile, the fracas over the Chatomuk ceremony showed little sign of dying down
quickly. CHARTO's Chuon Mom Thol demanded an apology to all the particpating NGOs
from Kassie Neou for his allegation of political bias.
Neou, meanwhile, had gone out of town and could not be contacted for comment.
Srey Chan Phallara, director of the NGO Outreach, said reports from her staff who
attended previous meetings of the organizing committee showed that suggestions had
been made to invite both premiers at the same time.
But Thol was adamant that the majority agreed to invite only Hun Sen.
Phallara suggested that what had happened was partly the result of a personality
clash between NGO chiefs, and Kem Sokha said that it was due to in-fighting among
"If leaders of the government quarrel, and political parties quarrel, why should
NGOs also quarrel among themselves?" said Sokha.
Coincidently, the US-based Human Rights Watch released a report this month titled
"Deterioration of human rights in Cambodia", which concluded that "the
human rights situation in Cambodia remains precarious".