Concerns are mounting among the human rights community, particularly in the wake of political analyst Kem Ley’s murder, that UN Special Rapporteur to Cambodia Rhona Smith is failing to fulfil her mandate in a time of what one observer termed “fear and confusion”.
That observer, John Coughlan, was previously an employee of the UN’s human rights office in Cambodia, which provides technical support to the rapporteur but has no say over their actions. He now monitors Cambodia for Amnesty International.
“The Special Rapporteur’s inactivity is a huge concern. The Cambodia Rapporteur mandate exists out of necessity but its utility is undone when no action is taken in times of need. It is not enough to hide behind joint statements in times like these,” Coughlan wrote in an email yesterday.
Five UN special rapporteurs, Smith among them, issued a joint statement on Wednesday expressing “deep concerns” over political commentator Ley’s murder and calling for the investigation into it to be “conducted by an independent body with no ties to the government”.
Rupert Abbott, former deputy Asia director for Amnesty International and now a human rights consultant, yesterday emphasised that the rights community’s frustration, which he said has been building for months, “Is not with the mandate, but the mandate holder [Smith].”
Abbott stressed the importance of the special rapporteur’s mandate, saying that foreign governments “base their assessment of what is going on in Cambodia based on what the rapporteur says”.
“Also important is expressing solidarity with civil society, who might feel that if the rapporteur can’t speak out, how can they?” he continued.
An employee of a Cambodian human rights NGO who spoke on condition of anonymity yesterday gave voice to some of those frustrations in an email.
“Professor Rhona Smith needs to break her silence, begin fulfilling her mandate as a country-specific special rapporteur, and hold the Royal Government of Cambodia responsible for violations of its international human rights obligations,” they wrote.
In another email, Cambodian Centre for Human Rights president Chak Sopheap, citing what she termed a deterioration of the human rights situation in Cambodia, said: “More than ever we need independent experts to vocalise their concerns and respond to the worsening situation accordingly.”
She added that while CCHR appreciated the joint statement following Ley’s murder, “we are hopeful that the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia is monitoring the situation and that she will go further to highlight the grave abuses of human rights currently occurring in Cambodia”.
The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, one of 21 signatories to a statement issued on Kem Ley’s death yesterday, told the Post that the UN was in danger of missing “a critical opportunity to use its leverage in order to arrest further deterioration and reverse the situation.”
“We hope that Ms. Smith will be able to publicly set out clear benchmarks on fundamental freedoms that should be met ahead of the September session of the UN Human Rights Council, where she is scheduled to assess the situation in the country,” a statement from the group reads.
It goes on to push for benchmarks including the release of imprisoned members of civil society, an independent investigation into Ley’s death, the lifting of restrictions on peaceful protest, and “clear steps by the government to guarantee the freedoms of assembly, association and expression”.
Multiple attempts to reach Special Rapporteur Smith via a variety of channels were unsuccessful yesterday.
“It’s simply not good enough,” Rupert Abbott said yesterday of Smith’s perceived inactivity. He said her predecessors had successfully straddled the line between criticism of the government and working with it.
Smith’s immediate predecessor, Surya Subedi, who served as special rapporteur from 2009 to 2015, frequently butted heads with the government. So much so that Hun Sen publicly lashed out at him on multiple occasions, while Om Yentieng, then-head of the government’s human rights committee, accused him of being more one-sided than a European football referee.
That ability to publicly call the government to account while maintaining a degree of access generally won high marks from the human rights community.
“He was able to strike the balance between managing to engage with the government, but also being able to criticise, call a spade a spade and say where there have been human rights abuses,” Abbott said yesterday.
“I think it might be time to ask the question if [Smith] is right for the mandate, especially at this time. Perhaps she would consider if it is time for her to pass it on to someone [better] suited for the role at this time.”
Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson yesterday said he had addressed many of the concerns being voiced directly with Smith.
“The only way to deal with Phnom Penh’s game is to remain principled, publicly vocal, and consistently critical of the government’s very serious human rights failings. I’ve made precisely these points to Rhona Smith when I met her in Bangkok, but we’re still not seeing much progress,” he said in an email to the Post yesterday.
“Her last end of mission statement was hugely disappointing, leaving out a whole slew of major human rights incidents and problems in favour of trying to vainly find things to earn favor from the government,” Robertson wrote.
“Her failures to date are a continuing source of discussion among international human rights groups, but we’re still hoping that she can turn it around.”