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Mixed message to UN

Mam Sonando, owner of Beehive Radio, marches towards the Ministry of Information with supporters last week
Mam Sonando, owner of Beehive Radio, marches towards the Ministry of Information with supporters last week to demand a licence for an independent television station. Pha Lina

Mixed message to UN

A call for the Cambodian government to lift its controversial ban on public assembly is among 34 such recommendations it has chosen to defer in the wake of last week’s second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of its human rights situation.

The UN on Saturday released a list of the 206 recommendations made by UN member states at a three-plus-hour meeting in Geneva.

Unlike in 2009, when Cambodia accepted all 91 human rights recommendations, the government accepted only 172 this year, choosing to defer its position on a number of hot-button issues, and sending a seemingly mixed message on the tack the country plans to take on human rights over the next four years.

Many of the recommendations that Cambodia accepted – such as Canada’s suggestion to “Take the necessary steps to strengthen the legal framework surrounding elections” – echo promises the government has already made in recent months.

Others – like Botswana’s recommendation to “adopt legislative and other measures that promote the enjoyment of freedom of expression” – strike a similar chord to recent calls from the opposition and civil society in the wake of violent crackdowns on public gatherings.

However, Cambodia also deferred several recommendations – including one from Portugal to “lift all restrictions to peaceful demonstrations” – that at times bear a striking similarity to others they had accepted.

For example, despite accepting one recommendation to “Protect the rights of human rights defenders”, it deferred another to defend such workers against “arbitrary arrest”.

Cambodia also supported a recommendation to “continue its efforts for the human rights education and training at all levels”, while deferring another “to provide training for human rights compatible conduct of the police, [and] to prohibit the use of violence by unofficial or plain clothes security forces”.

The government also notably deferred recommendations to reform media ownership, a topic that has come to the fore recently with independent radio broadcaster Mam Sonando’s thwarted efforts to obtain a licence for a TV station.

Cambodia likewise deferred a recommendation to investigate the killing of protesters on January 3, prompting concerns and speculation that the government may be paying closer attention to the commitments it makes on the world stage.

Suon Bunsak, executive secretary of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, said yesterday that Cambodia has a long history of signing its name to human rights conventions while simultaneously struggling to implement them.

“Cambodia is a champion country in ratifying human rights instruments in the ASEAN region,” Bunsak said, while noting at the same time that the country often fails to live up to those commitments.

That was also the case with 2009’s UPR recommendations, which government officials “haven’t done that much” to implement, he said.

The fact that Cambodia did not accept all of this year’s recommendations, he added, could signal that the government isn’t making promises it can’t keep, and may take a more earnest approach to making the recommendations a reality.

“The problem [in the past] is that they did not [take] seriously the implementation of the recommendations,” Bunsak said.

A man is beaten by authorities during a clash that erupted last week after protesters were blocked from Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park
A man is beaten by authorities during a clash that erupted last week after protesters were blocked from Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, where they were intending to gather to rally against low wages. Post Staff

But last week, he continued, “the head of the delegation to the UPR, he made an open and solemn promise to the states who were in the session … that the implementation would actually take place.”

Nonetheless, he said, Cambodia deferring certain recommendations, particularly ones relating to violence against protesters and protections for human rights defenders, was a “worrying” sign.

“These kinds of questions, Cambodia needs to be willing to accept [them],” Bunsak said. “The recommendation relating to the training for authorities in human rights, that should be accepted by the Cambodian government, because recently these authorities have been violating human rights in breaking up demonstrations.

“I think they have to receive all of these kinds of recommendations. These are very relevant to the country right now,” he added.

However, Mak Sambath, deputy head of the government’s Human Rights Committee and leader of Cambodia’s delegation to the UPR, maintained yesterday that the deferment of certain recommendations did not equate to a flat dismissal.

“There were some recommendations related to the events on January 2 and 3, but we have not yet decided which recommendations would be accepted or not. We will have a meeting with the related government institutions, and will report to the government for making a decision,” he said.

“Each country has three months to respond [to the recommendations], and we hope that we will respond maybe in a period of one month.”

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY VONG SOKHENG

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