The government has apparently done an about face on its stance over the closure of the United Nations human rights office in Phnom Penh, with an official contradicting previous claims that the government had requested the office be shuttered unconditionally.
In a meeting with visiting UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday, Prime Minister Hun Sen proposed that Christophe Peschoux, the long-time head of the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, resign from his post.
“If Mr Peschoux is not removed, then the UN human rights office in Phnom Penh will be closed,” Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said after the meeting.
Information Minister Khieu Kanharith confirmed later that the office would be closed regardless, quoting Hun Sen as having requested the closure of the OHCHR office on the grounds that “other countries in the world don’t have human rights offices, and Cambodia doesn’t want this office either”.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong has backed away from Khieu Kanharith’s comments, insisting the government would ask the UN to close the office only as a last resort.
“He [Peschoux] is a spokesperson for the opposition party and does not cooperate with the government of Cambodia,” he said.
Koy Kuong said said Peschoux had failed to adhere to the agreement between the government and the UN that established the office.
“We don’t just want to close [it], we just want the UN to replace Christophe Peschoux,” he said. “If they do not replace him, they [the UN] should close down the office.”
He called the OHCHR “unnecessary” and said there were countless human rights groups capable of filling its role, but reiterated that the office’s closure would only come as a last-ditch measure if Peschoux was not removed.
“We have a lot of NGOs and international organisations working on human rights issues in Cambodia, a lot,” he said. “We have enough Christophe Peschouxs.”
When contacted, Khieu Kanharith said the government had put “mechanisms” in place to solve the issue, but declined to elaborate. “I cannot make any further comments at the moment,” he said.
On Saturday, civil society representatives, NGO officials and diplomats discussed the situation in a scheduled meeting with Kang Kyong-wha, deputy high commissioner for human rights. Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Centre, said a coalition of civil society groups planned to send an open letter to Ban Ki-moon this week, expressing support for the OHCHR office.
The meeting came after Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International jointly called for United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who arrived in Cambodia this weekend, to “publicly express support” for the office in the wake of the comments.
“This attack by the government on the OHCHR Cambodia office should be seen as a direct assault on the UN’s human rights mandate,” read the statement, issued on Friday.
The two groups also called for donor governments to Cambodia to “voice their strong objections to the Cambodian government’s statements”.
Koy Kuong dismissed the statement, saying the government considered HRW a “rubbish organisation”. Officials from OHCHR could not be reached for comment. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY VONG SOKHENG