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Thai expert named UN rapporteur

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Vitit Muntarbhorn will replace Rhona Smith as UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights. Jean-Marc Ferre/UN

Thai expert named UN rapporteur

Thai national Vitit Muntarbhorn is set to be the replacement for Briton Rhona Smith when the latter completes her five-year mandate as UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia, according to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

In a letter dated February 8, UNHRC president Nazhat Shameem Khan said that following her thorough consultation with all of the relevant stakeholders, she decided to follow the first recommendation of the consultative group.

The consultative group was formed to recommend candidates to fill six vacancies for various human rights related offices around the world, including Cambodia.

“For the position of Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights in Cambodia, I propose for appointment Mr Vitit Muntarbhorn,” she wrote.

The position has been held by Smith since March 2015, and Vitit’s takeover will be formally announced in March during the 46th session of the UNHRC.

In his application for the position, Vitit said he currently holds some positions with UN-related bodies including membership on the International Labour Organisation’s Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations, serving on the UN Secretary General’s Civil Society Advisory Board on the prevention of sexual exploitation and also serving on the Advisory Board of the UN Independent Expert for the study on children deprived of liberty.

Vitit has been teaching international law, human rights and a variety of other subjects for over four decades in Thailand. He has also taught in the UK, Canada, France, Japan and South Korea.

He is the recipient of the 2004 UNESCO Human Rights Education Prize and in 2018 he was bestowed a knighthood, or KBE, for his services to international human rights.

KBE stands for Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. If Vitit was a citizen of the UK, he could therefore use the title “Sir” before his name if he wished, but as a citizen of Thailand he is instead permitted to append KBE after his name should he choose to.

In his application statement, Vitit wrote that Cambodia has made impressive progress on many fronts since the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991, noting that the country is a party to most of the core human rights treaties.

He pointed out that Cambodia has made much progress in socio-cultural and economic terms with an average of seven per cent GDP growth year after year until the Covid-19 pandemic. He said positive gains in children’s access to education and an overall reduction in poverty in Cambodia should especially be lauded.

“Thirty years on in 2020-2021, there are key challenges interconnected with the issue of the quality of human rights implementation in the country in keeping with international standards. A key consideration is democratisation and the call for fuller and more substantive enjoyment of civil and political rights and freedoms, especially the need to ensure and strengthen democratic space, civil society participation and checks and balances in the country,” he wrote.

His plan for helping Cambodia will be based on a constructive, principled and respectful approach which would be both synchronised and strategic, he added.

Once confirmed in the position, Vitit said he will focus on the impact of Covid-19 from a human rights perspective; expansion of democratic space and pluralism; and checks and balances in government power.

He will also focus also on the concerns of vulnerable groups; land, environment and resources allocation and conservation; and the judicial system.

“It is my fervent wish to see the concretisation of human rights, democracy, peace and sustainable development in concert – in this land blessed with great hospitality and culture,” he wrote.

Chin Malin, vice-president of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee (CHRC), said the government always cooperates with all international bodies regarding human rights.

“No matter who [the Special Rapporteur] is, we are prepared to happily work with them based on international principles and laws and mutual respect for sovereignty, equality, and non-interference into the internal affairs of other states,” he said.

Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said Vitit is a human rights heavyweight of global repute with a long list of accomplishments under his belt.

“Perhaps being a Thai scholar and more knowledgeable about cultures similar to the Thai culture, especially about Khmer political culture, he would get better consideration and cooperation from the Cambodian government.

“More consideration and increased cooperation from the government will be critical to the success of any UN special rapporteur’s mission in Cambodia,” he said.

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