Surya Prasad Subedi, the UN's new special rapporteur for Cambodia, talks about his new posting and the challenges ahead.
Surya Prasad Subedi, a professor of international law at the University of Leeds, will succeed Kenyan national Yash Ghai as the UN's special rapporteur for human rights.
What is the history of your connection with Cambodia?
As a professor of international and human rights law, I have closely studied the evolving situation in Cambodia for a long time; and throughout my academic career - both at the International Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands and at several universities in England - I have taught a number of Cambodian students who now occupy high positions in both the government and the non-governmental human rights sector. In addition, I was general editor of the Asian Yearbook of International Law for six years between 1999 and 2006, during which I kept a close eye on the situation in Cambodia and interacted frequently with Cambodian scholars, as one of the objectives of this annual publication is to promote the rule of law in Asian countries.
How do you see your new role?
My objective as an independent, impartial, neutral and professional person would be to help the government of Cambodia to fulfil its obligations under international human rights treaties. I would be taking a constructive and cooperative approach to strengthen the rule of law, promote and protect human rights and make democracy stronger in Cambodia. My task would be to support the government to identify what the human rights challenges are in the country and discuss how to improve the human rights situation for the people of Cambodia. What I would be hoping to do would be to cast an expert eye on the existing constitutional, legal and administrative mechanism relating to the protection and promotion of human rights in Cambodia and offer my own recommendations as an independent expert on how to improve the system.
Cambodia is a country with an ancient and rich civilisation and courageous and resilient people. The future prosperity of Cambodia lies in greater respect for the dignity of each and every national and a higher level of protection of people's rights.
In which area do you think you can have your greatest impact on the human rights situation in Cambodia?
I am still studying the situation in Cambodia and it is perhaps too early for me to pinpoint any particular area at this stage. I am looking forward to visiting Cambodia soon and interacting with the people in the government and with other stakeholders. Once I have completed my visit, I will be able to identify areas in which I can make my contribution.
I imagine there is a fine line between lecturing governments about human rights and making constructive criticisms. How do you perceive this tension?
The very position of a UN special rapporteur is a challenging one - to perform a difficult but honourable task. I regard this as a huge privilege and a great opportunity to make my contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights in Cambodia. Promoting human rights and speaking for the oppressed, marginalised and disadvantaged people is always a challenge. I am committed to human rights and the rule of law nationally and internationally, and I would do whatever it takes to discharge my responsibilities as effectively as possible. But my approach would be a constructive one - designed to achieve results.
THE FUTURE PROSPERITY OF CAMBODIA LIES IN GREATER RESPECT FOR THE DIGNITY OF EACH AND EVERY NATIONAL ...
What impact will the UN's new "code of conduct" for human rights rapporteurs have on your work? Do you agree with critics that it decreases the ability of rights envoys to speak out in their countries?
I am not new to the world of international human rights law, but new into the role of a UN special rapporteur. Of course, I will have to operate within the approved policies and practices of the UN for human rights rapporteurs. However, I do not necessarily think that the new "code of conduct" of the UN will limit my ability to fulfil my duties as an independent expert.
More generally, do you feel the new UN Human Rights Council has improved the human rights work of the organisation?
Promoting and protecting human rights is a continuous and challenging task. No organisation is perfect in achieving its objectives, and the Human Rights Council is no exception. However, in spite of some limitations, the council has done a good job and made a good contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe.
How else can the UN balance the seeming contradiction between its human rights advocacy work and the fact that so many of its member states are rights abusers?
One of the main objectives of the UN human rights agencies is to make all members of the UN fulfil their obligations they themselves have undertaken under various human rights treaties, and live up to the expectations of their people. The human rights obligations are not imposed on any state by any outside power. Every state promised to abide by the provisions of the Charter of the UN, which includes respect for human rights, when they decided to join this world organisation.
Of course, there are a number of states that are failing in their obligations. The UN is there to identify the reasons for such failings and offer constructive advice to improve the situation in any given country. It should be a collective endeavour to improve the situation in any country - including Cambodia.
Your predecessor Yash Ghai had a notoriously chilly relationship with the Cambodian government. What challenges do you think this will throw up for you?
No doubt that professor Yash Ghai is a very distinguished person with a serious commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. I hold him in very high esteem. I am aware that he did not receive as much cooperation as he would have liked to from the government of Cambodia. That was unfortunate. However, I am hopeful that the Cambodian authorities will cooperate with me. In life, different individuals have different approaches to any given issue, and such an approach is informed by their own experience and background; and so I will have my own approach.
What rights issue do you think is the most pressing in Cambodia today?
In any society those who suffer most from human rights violations are the weaker sections of the population, including children, women, factory workers, those forcibly evicted from their land to make way for the so-called modern development, political leaders who criticise the government for its weaknesses, those who write against the wrongful activities of the people in power and those who champion human rights for a stronger and genuine democracy under the rule of law. I do not think that the situation in Cambodia is very different in this respect.
Therefore, the issues here would be to ensure that the people belonging to these groups can enjoy their human rights and have their dignity protected.
What is your view on the current trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders?
I was glad that after years of effort there is now finally a tribunal that is able to start its work. It is necessary to allow this international-Cambodian tribunal to bring people who were responsible for committing atrocities to justice. This will go some way to delivering justice to the people who are still living with a dreadful past and to healing their wounds. It is in the interests of Cambodia to have this tribunal succeed in its mission: It will send a big message to people that sooner or later if you commit atrocities and violate people's rights you will be brought to justice. It will have a high educational value too, as it will deter people from committing crimes against humanity not only in Cambodia but across the globe.
INTERVIEW BY SEBASTIAN STRANGIO