A new director has been appointed to the Cambodian Office of the High Commissioner
for Human Rights, an organization which has had an, at times, rocky relationship
with Government. Rita Reddy talked to Peter Sainsbury about her new job and
her plans for the office.
IT has been a difficult start for Rita Reddy, barely a month into her new position
heading up the United Nations body responsible for human rights issues in Cambodia.
She says she has been astounded by the work load the office has to contend with,
at the same time she was surprised at the endemic violence in Phnom Penh.
The climate of violence in Cambodia
"I was in Bosnia when it was being shelled, and it is worse here," she
"This is not normal. It restricts one's movements - don't travel after 6 pm,
at least that is what our security people tell us."
"There has been a bloody history in Cambodia - maybe it has become incorporated
into their genes."
A new focus and approach
Reddy intends to deal with these problems in a more "holistic manner" -
she terms it "change through exposure and example" - combined with a greater
emphasis on education and training, and also looking at people's rights in a far
wider context, a trend she said was becoming widespread.
"You can see a discernible shift from individual and civil rights to economic
and developmental issues such as human rights," she said.
"The right to development must be looked at together [with traditional concepts
of human rights].
"It must be a synergistic approach.
"In this context of rapid development we need to be conscious of all people.
"Our office will be focusing on that theme."
But she insists that this will not come at the expense of the office's other activities:
"We will continue to monitor, educate and provide legal assistance."
She said the dispossession of the rural and urban poor was one of the most serious
issues facing Cambodia and urgent action was needed by the Government, NGOs and the
UN to address the problems of land titles and possession.
"We all need to come together to expedite the process [of land law reform].
It seems to be taking quite a lot of time."
Training and education
In the training area, she pointed out, they had reached a great number of people
in the armed forces by targeting those in charge and having them take the message
to their troops.
"We have trained the military and gendarmerie: talking to commanders, we have
in effect trained 45,000," she said.
"We are so crippled, our resources are so little.
"We are trying to work with partners like Human Rights NGOs. They don't have
much money either, but some things don't need a lot of money."
The Government's Human Rights Committee
One of the new initiatives that Reddy has undertaken is working with the Government's
Human Rights Committee, headed up by Hun Sen advisor Om Yieng Teng, who has been
given the rank equivalent to that of a minister.
"We are trying to work quite closely to assist them to assist the government
to improve the human rights of Cambodians," she said.
"They have plans to have regional, provincial and village structures to monitor
and investigate Human Rights violations and to educate."
She said it was also part of their mandate to "develop a national plan of human
rights." Part of that is an attempt to "create a dialogue to bridge the
gap between the NGOs and the Government."
However she admits that the Committee is partisan, though her office has little option
but to work with them.
"They are not independent. But it is the State that is party to the conventions.
"We cannot be here forever. It is part of an exit strategy.
"We cannot say that after some time it would evolve into an independent commission.
This is speculation. But the Indonesian example is hopeful."
A model to follow
She said Cambodia needed to find its own solution to the human rights problem; there
was no example to follow.
"There is no country in the world that you can say has a perfect human rights
record. There is no model.
"There is always discrimination - ethnic, racial, language. We have to move
towards an improvement.
"We need to give them a chance.
"The Government recognizes the need for reform. The Government is acutely aware
of the problems."
The KR trial and impunity
Reddy believes that a successful trial of the former leaders of the Khmer Rouge would
go a long way towards breaking down the culture of impunity in Cambodia.
"If we can bring that to a successful conclusion it will be a psychological
"I don't think anyone is under any illusion this is going to be easy.
"Even if they agree to the trial law there is going to be a question over its
The municipal authorities ban on workers street protests
A move Reddy described as "outrageous."
"I have an appointment with the deputy governor to discuss this.
"We will analyze the problem then advise the people and the trade unions.
"[The issues] involve freedom of movement, expression and the right to free
High profile cases
Reddy said there was little they could do about the Piseth Pelica murder, and the
acid attack allegedly committed by the wife of Svay Sitha, because "we need
witnesses and evidence."
"These are not political cases. These are jealous women taking revenge."
She added that Svay Sitha had been unfairly tarnished by the alleged actions of his
wife and it had reflected on his career:
"Svay Sitha was a member of the Human Rights Commission, but he was not on the
list just released.
"He has been a bit unfairly victimized. He has been put in a difficult position.
"These are high profile cases that people focus on. I think it is sad we don't
focus on the poorest of the poor.
"High profile cases illustrate a point but the poor need our help more.
"The others can find other ways of obtaining justice."
She said this was growing in the region, and had extended beyond the traditional
abuses of women and children who were being sold into sexual slavery.
"Globally it is becoming a problem.
"Men are being trafficked for labor."
She said trafficking for adoptions was also a major problem.
But she added there were moves afoot to tackle the problem: "There is a lot
that is being done in the greater Mekong region.
"At the end of March there is a regional conference in Manila, organized by
the Asian Regional Initiative Against Trafficking, which we hope will come up with
a regional declaration and plan against trafficking."
She said Office representatives would attend and from that they hoped to be able
to draft guidelines at an Asean level, but after achieving that money would become
"That is all we can do given our limited resources."
She said at a local level they pursue cases but they were up against a powerful,
"We follow through to make sure the perpetrators have been prosecuted.
"We work with local NGOs which have links to the courts.
"It is so lucrative - what drug trafficking was in the 70s and 80s."
However her hope is that countries will deal with trafficking in the same way they
deal with drugs - taking a tough stance against the trade, pointing out it was
contained when "some countries introduced the death penalty" for drug offenses,
"though we are against the death penalty," she added hurriedly.