Successive UN Special Human Rights Representatives have wrestled with how best
to approach their work in Cambodia. Thomas Hammarberg, after 10 months in
the job, has made public his mounting concerns about human rights. This is an edited
transcript of a Mar 18 press conference.
I have concluded my third visit to Cambodia since last May when I took on the
task to represent the UN Secretary-General on human rights in this country. As before
I have traveled in the provinces, this time in Battambang and Koh Kong and visited
prisons, police stations, courts and had discussions with provincial leaders. Here,
in Phnom Penh I met with co-Ministers of Interior Sar Kheng and You Hockry and the
co-Minister of Defense Tea Banh, as well as the Military Court and the Military Prosecutor.
I have also had meeting with defenders and non-governmental organizations.
This time I have looked again into issues I have raised in earlier reports, among
them the functioning of the judicial system, the freedom of speech, the preparation
of the elections and measures against landmines. I have focused on some new aspects
- Violations of human rights by military personnel and the judicial response
- Interrogation methods used by the police and
- The possibilities for Cambodian children to enjoy their right to education.
On education I will recommend the international community to support present efforts
to develop the school system further, in particular in order to help poor children,
including girls, to a meaningful education. Let me raise some other issues as I have
First, violations by the military. In Battambang I had useful discussions with the
acting commander of the Fifth Military Region and his colleagues which I then followed
up during the meeting with the Defense Minister and the officials of the provincial
court and the Military Court.
We have, sadly, received a number of reports about military abuses of civilians.
Though mentioned in the media, these reports have not been taken sufficiently seriously
by the authorities. There is a general atmosphere of impunity around these violations.
Judges I have met have complained that it is difficult for the courts to take action
when people in uniform have been involved. Too often, commanders protect their soldiers
from being brought to the justice system. In fact, it has happened that courts have
been threatened by armed officers.
I have noted that the Military Prosecutors now do raise some cases of this kind and
also send them, after a preliminary investigation, to the ordinary civil courts.
This is a positive development, but more thoroughgoing measures are needed.
Secondly, torture. It is not unusual that someone arrested is beaten and kicked by
the police. In some cases reported to me there have been serious ill-treatment, torture.
This is illegal and a violation of international standards. Even certain forms of
psychological pressure are illegal, for instance, threats to kill. To interrogate
someone in a car, blindfolded and in an atmosphere of implicit threat to be murdered,
is not acceptable - even if the suspect is not beaten.
There have been cases of death in police custody. One such case in Battambang was
officially reported as a suicide. I am not convinced that that inquiry was impartial.
I have information indicating that the suspect was severely tortured before he was
It is essential that the authorities act firmly on such reported violations. It was
important that the Minister of Justice recently asked for exhumation of a body in
a case of reported ill-treatment. In fact, it turned out that the body in that case
showed signs of torture. Regrettably, this investigation did not try to establish
the cause of death in spite of the fact that a police report about "suicide"
A third concern of mine is the fact that the judicial system still does not function
well. The political authorities should take radical measures to safeguard the independence
of the judiciary. It is not independent today. Several measures should be taken without
One is to convene the Supreme Council of Magistracy. This body is key for the appointment
of new judges and in general for the functioning of the justice system. Without the
Supreme Council the necessary reforms of the system are blocked. It is most unfortunate
that the convening or not of the Supreme Council has been turned into divisive party
political issue. I appeal strongly to the two major forces within the Government
to seek, jointly, a way out of this deadlock...
Question: But how could this be done?
I have understood one party to say that the present judiciary is totally partisan
and that this political bias would be perpetuated if the Supreme Council was formed
on that basis. The other party says that if the judiciary shall be non-political,
new judges - and members of the Supreme Council - should not be appointed on the
basis of their political sympathies. I am convinced that there are ways moving out
of the impasse if there is a political will. The recommendation to the King to convene
the Supreme Council could be part of a broader package to safeguard the independence
and integrity of the judiciary. Measures to sever any link between a judge and a
political party. Steps to remedy the serious problem of corruption within the justice
system, including increasing the salaries. Another important measure would be to
amend article 51 of the Civil Servants Act which today in many cases effectively
blocks the possibility of arresting and prosecuting state officials.
On the latter point, I have been informed that the Minister of Justice has drafted
an amendment to this law which would improve this piece of legislation considerably.
I hope it will be approved. There should be no reason for further delays on this,
in talks with the First Prime Minister and the Second Prime Minister already last
year I got assurances that they would work for a change of article 51.
In relation to the problem of impunity, it seems important to start a serious discussion
about how to handle the cases of gross violations in the past. I am here, in particular,
referring to the horrendous crimes committed during the period of 1975 to the end
of 1978. These crimes were 'crimes against humanity' and have to be thoroughly investigated.
It is of greatest importance that the full truth is exposed and responsibility clarified.
I have suggested a discussion about the establishment of a 'truth commission' for
that purpose. Such bodies have been set up in some other countries, in South Africa
and in Latin America. The commission for El Salvador had international members. As
the example of South Africa shows, such investigation procedures do not exclude the
possibility of pardon and forgiveness at the end, the point is that facts and responsibilities
I believe this is a most important issue but I am aware that the initiative has to
come from within. Any process must be initiated by Cambodian authorities themselves.
If, however, they suggest international support for such an initiative I pledge to
argue for a positive response.
I have to raise one other matter relating to justice. I am extremely concerned about
the fact that acts of political violence have gone unpunished. Soon after I took
on this task for the Secretary-General one journalist was murdered here in Phnom
Penh, Thun Bun Ly. His case in still not clarified. In November last year I wrote
to the Government and appended a memorandum on this and other cases of violent attacks
against journalists. I recommended serious investigations into the cases and also
an investigation into why such thorough investigations had not been undertaken or
not been successful so far. Until today, five months later I have not got a substantive
reply to this.
Let me close this introduction with two pieces of good news. In my discussion with
the co-Minister of Defense Tea Banh we talked about the problem of landmines. I told
him of my efforts to convince the international community to give further support
to the demining work in Cambodia. I also told him that I had met questions on whether
new mines were laid or not and that I felt it was important that Cambodia adopted
a clear law banning use, production, trade and stockpiling of all anti-personnel
mines. The Minister reacted positively to this.
I have also appreciated leaning that there is within the Ministry of Interior a discussion
about more effective measures to handle the issue of child trafficking and prostitution.
The problem is serious and gets even more so with the spreading of HIV.
Question: You sound more critical now than after your two previous visits. Is
this a fair impression?
Yes that is correct. I am disappointed about the lack of response from the Government
on several concrete and reasonable recommendations. The Ministry of Justice has got
little support in its efforts to develop the rule of law, including the building
of an effective judiciary. Concrete cases of serious human rights violations have
not been acted upon.
Let me mention one more example. When I was here in December I visited the prison
in Kompong Speu and talked with the prison director, the staff, the prisoners and
the non-governmental groups and the court staff. They all complained that there was
not enough food for the prisoners. The disbursements of money from the Ministry of
Interior for the food were long delayed. Money had been borrowed on an emergency
basis on the local market. The interest was high which reduced the value of the budget
allocation. The end result was a serious reduction in the amount of food to the prisoners
which caused malnutrition and illnesses among the prisoners. I raised this already
then in December with the Government. An important principle is involved. Prisoners
have been deprived of their liberty, they have not been sentenced to starvation.
Now when I visit the prisons in Battambang and Koh Kong I learn of exactly the same
problem. Budget allocations are coming more than two months late. This is unacceptable.
It should not be difficult to administer the budget payments more efficiently.
Question: How does your suggestion about a truth commission relate to the amnesty
given to Ieng Sary and others?
I have not understood the amnesty given by the King to be a blanket one but limited
to cover any prosecution according to the 1994 law against Khmer Rouge and the sentence
passed as a result of the 1979 trial. This should not prevent any procedure to establish
a truth commission. Also , to me it is clear that the 1979 process had shortcomings
and should not be seen as the final judicial answer to the crimes committed.
Question: What have you done in relation to the arrest of Srun Von Vannak, the
chief of security of the Khmer Nation Party, and what were the results?
I reacted strongly when I heard about the murder of the brother-in-law of the Second
Prime Minister [Kov Samuth]. The UN office expressed sympathy to the family and requested
a thorough investigation. It is of course important that proper procedures are followed
also in a case where there might be a political motive.
I was therefore concerned when I leant that the three persons - Srun Von Vannak,
Sors Kosim and Prum Meanrith - who were arrested in mid-February were not dealt with
according to the law. They were not given an opportunity to consult with lawyers
within 48 hours. In fact, even after about four weeks they had not been able to do
so. I have expressed my deep concern about this in a letter to the Minister of Interior.
I also raised the case with the co-Ministers when I met them a couple of days ago.
I now understand that access has been allowed. The UN office has also requested permission
to see the suspects, but of course only if interviews could be made in private.
Question: In the light of several earlier cases of violent attacks without arrest,
is it not strange that there are arrests in this particular case?
I have to see what happens in each individual case. We want a serious response to
each and every case, investigations according to professional standards, arrests
and prosecutions on the basis of objective evidence and within the law. I am concerned
that procedures were not respected in this case. I will follow the further development
with keen interest.
Question: Do you see any connection between cases of torture and the fact that
we are coming closer to elections?
No, I have not made that connection. Some of the cases reported have been relating
to people suspected of having Khmer Rouge relations. In other cases there seem not
to have been a political aspect.
One pattern, however, seems to be that the policemen feel compelled to get a confession
and that within 48 hours, that is before the suspect is to be brought to the court.
The police is not well educated in obtaining other evidence than a confession. Also,
there is not sufficient disincentive against violent interrogation.
Question: How would you react to a decision to postpone the elections?
The national elections should be held next year. That is an agreement and a promise.
I am aware of the risk of human rights violations in the midst of the election fever,
that campaigning could get out of hand. But that has to be prevented through agreements
on the rules of the game between the parties, mature political leadership and an
effective and a human rights-oriented policy for law and order.
The elections should be - and be seen to be - genuinely free and fair. An independent
mechanism, an election commission, is needed to guarantee this. In fact, I found
the speech that co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng gave in November 1995 a good inventory
of necessary steps to ensure free and fair elections. However, implementation has
Remember that the right to political participation is an important human right.
Question: So, you see no reason to postpone the elections?
No reason that stands out as convincing.