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UN backs local OHCHR office in dispute

UN Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) country representative Wan-Hea Lee speaks during a press conference in Phnom Penh last month.
UN Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) country representative Wan-Hea Lee speaks during a press conference in Phnom Penh last month. Hong Menea

UN backs local OHCHR office in dispute

The United Nations is standing behind Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) country representative Wan-Hea Lee after a letter signed by Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon accused her of failing to respect Cambodia’s sovereignty.

Sokhon had taken umbrage at Lee’s public request for an explanation of the government’s decision to ban opposition leader Sam Rainsy from returning to Cambodia.

The letter, sent last Friday, also alluded to OHCHR’s lapsed memorandum of understanding with the Foreign Ministry, declaring the agency’s activities “illegitimate” until a new one was signed, something Sokhon said the government had made a “firm commitment” to.

Rupert Colville – a spokesman for High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, who was copied on the letter – said in emailed comments yesterday that memorandum or not, OHCHR would continue to operate.

“The universal mandate of the High Commissioner for Human Rights means he and his staff can meet with, deal with, and take up issues on behalf of anyone whose rights may have been violated based on international Human Rights Law – not on national legislation,” Colville wrote. “That is our normal work, and we do it all the time all across the world.”

OHCHR Cambodia’s Lee took a similarly strong line in an email to the Post, although she did note that she shared the government’s disappointment with the way her remarks on Rainsy’s exile were reported.

“When restrictions are imposed on this or any other human right, the UN Human Rights Committee – and indeed, the Cambodian public – will expect an explanation, which Cambodia is obliged to provide through many well established reporting channels,” Lee wrote. “This is not a personal view, these are voluntarily accepted human rights standards and reporting obligations.”

In an email, Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson described Sokhon’s letter as “a blatant ploy to try and and browbeat the UN Country Team to take action against Wan-Hea Lee”.

“She’s done nothing wrong and the UN should stand up to this intimidation,” Robertson wrote. “[Prime Minister] Hun Sen needs to stop playing these political games and order an immediate extension of the [memorandum of understanding].”

Ou Virak, president of the Future Forum think tank, said that there was likely more bark than bite in the government’s allusions to the lapsed memorandum.

“It’s getting a bit old, isn’t it?” Virak said. “They are not in any position to close the office or kick them out.”

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