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Prison oversight lags: UN

Prison oversight lags: UN

Five years after first ratifying the UN Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT), Cambodia remains delinquent in honouring some of its commitments under the treaty, UN representatives said yesterday.

Under the OPCAT, Cambodia was obliged to create an independent National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) to monitor and curb torture in places of detention – such as prisons, police stations and drug detention centres – within a year of its ratification of the protocol.

However, some four years after the first round of spot-checks of Cambodia’s detention centres by the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT), and two years after a 2011 admonishment from the UN, Cambodia has failed to do so, relying instead on a government panel composed of the very ministries it’s meant to monitor, SPT chairman Malcolm Evans said.

“There has been no change in the institutional arrangements since [2011],” Evans said, speaking on the sidelines of a conference on implementing an independent NPM yesterday.

But “in international law, non-compliance measures are usually not that robust”, he added, noting that in the case of “continued non-compliance”, provisions in the OPCAT are limited to a public rebuke.

The call for an independent body came on the heels of last week’s round of unannounced spot-checks on places of detention by the SPT, the findings of which will remain confidential under the OPCAT unless the government requests that they be made public.

And while Evans yesterday said the measure of an NPM’s independence varies depending on the national context, NPMs need to have “degrees of separation” from the government bodies they monitor.

Despite the fact that Cambodia’s current inter-ministerial panel is composed in part by the ministries of justice and interior, General Department of Prisons director Kuy Bunsorn yesterday expressed outright opposition to the creation of a new NPM, saying that reviews by the Interior Ministry and National Police had already vouched for the independence of the current body.

“This has shown that we now have enough transparency and independence already, and we can accept that,” Bunsorn said. “So there is no need to create any new independent body to monitor treatment of prisoners as the UN has said, and we will not consider it, because we have already established one.”

Bunsorn then raised the question of who was qualified to measure independence.

“Now, I don’t understand about this ‘independent’ word. Who is to put a score on it?” he asked. “Who is independent? Is the NGO or the foreign NGO that has received funds from foreign donors and implemented work here … independent?”

Interior Minister Sar Kheng also expressed ambivalence at the creation of a new NPM, insisting that the current system was effective, while acknowledging some torture still occurs.

“In Cambodia, we have established this committee, but this committee is comprised of officials from the Royal government,” he said in his address at yesterday’s conference. “If this same committee is able to achieve this task, then it reflects this willingness [to prevent torture] as well.”

“On the contrary, if there is another committee that does not have that effect, then that does not adhere to this desire.”

But according to Sharon Critoph, prisons consultant for the rights group Licadho, Cambodia’s “current inter-ministerial committee is clearly not effective and lacks any semblance of independence”.

While Licadho monitors only 18 Cambodian prisons, and not every type of detention centre like the SPT, Critoph said via email “there has also been no discernible change in the type, frequency and severity of abuse [in prisons] since the SPT’s December 2009 visit”.

“The majority of abuse reported to Licadho occurred in police custody, often in order to extract confessions,” she added. “It is clear that torture and ill-treatment go underreported in Cambodia, especially in police custody where abuse appears to be normalized.”

At yesterday’s conference, however, Kheng maintained that the inter-ministerial panel had made strides during Cambodia’s “development and peace-restoring period”.

“It’s not perfect,” he said. “[But] Cambodia has done its best.”

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