A COALITION of activist groups yesterday sent an open letter to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, expressing support for the embattled UN human rights office in Phnom Penh and describing the government’s recent attacks on its director as “a smokescreen” to “distract observers” from rights issues facing Cambodia.
The letter, signed by 15 local organisations, stated that recent government statements referring to Christophe Peschoux, head of the local Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, as an “opposition spokesman” were consistent with previous attempts to damp down outspoken government critics.
“This is consistent with the behaviour of senior government members in recent years, whose responses to measured and constructive criticisms on issues such as freedom of expression, the independence of the judiciary, corruption, and the trafficking of women and children, have become increasingly belligerent,” the letter stated.
During a meeting with the visiting secretary general last week, Prime Minister Hun Sen said the OHCHR would be closed if Peschoux, the long-time director of the office, were not removed from his post.
The letter said the request for Peschoux’s resignation was “an attempt by the government to determine the leadership of OHCHR Cambodia”, and pledged full support for the office. They added that OHCHR played an essential role in ensuring Cambodia meets its international human rights obligations.
The letter came amid increasing uncertainty as to the government’s stance towards the OHCHR. Some officials have backtracked on comments by Information Minister Khieu Kanharith, who said during Ban’s visit that the office would be closed regardless of Peschoux’s position.
On Sunday, Koy Kuong described the office as “unnecessary”, but said the government would request its closure only if Peschoux remained.
Yesterday, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong further softened the government’s stance, stating that an agreement between the government and the UN allowed the office to remain open until January 2012.
“No decision has been made in relation to the closure of the UN human rights office,” he said at a press briefing in Phnom Penh.
Peschoux said yesterday that the secretary general had “stressed the value of the OHCHR Office in Phnom Penh and its essential public advocacy role”, but declined to comment on the furor surrounding his position.
John Coughlan, senior legal consultant for the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said yesterday that the government’s softening of previous statements might be a recognition of the office’s importance.
“Hopefully, the apparent change in the government’s stance towards the UN human rights office in Cambodia is reflective of their understanding of the need for and benefits of its presence here,” he said.
Coughlan said that any closure of the office would leave Cambodian NGOs “very much in the balance”, questioning how effectively they could operate in a country that did not allow UN rights officials to operate freely.
“If the UN office is closed for its constructive criticism of the government, it will set a chilling precedent for smaller local organisations,” he said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHEANG SOKHA