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UN rapporteur Rhona Smith defends approach

Prime Minister Hun Sen and UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia Rhona Smith shake hands at the peace palace during a 2015 meeting in Phnom Penh. AFP
Prime Minister Hun Sen and UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia Rhona Smith shake hands at the peace palace during a 2015 meeting in Phnom Penh. AFP

UN rapporteur Rhona Smith defends approach

UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith has responded to growing concerns among the human rights community that she is not fulfilling her mandate.

In the immediate wake of Kem Ley’s murder, the Post reported on growing frustration among national and international NGO representatives over what they view as Smith’s silence over serious human rights issues.

In a statement on Friday, Smith emphasised that her mandate was to provide technical assistance to the Cambodian government and insisted that while she understood civil society’s “desire to see a more vocal special rapporteur”, she “would not want for attention to myself to detract from the main issues of the day”.

In a lengthier emailed response, Smith avoided discussing specific instances in which her perceived silence had been called out, such as the jailing and prosecution of civil society members and opposition activists and lawmakers.

She addressed criticisms that the only public statement she issued over Kem Ley’s murder was co-signed by four other special rapporteurs – whose mandates are not specific to Cambodia – and came three days after his death.

“This imminent joint statement was also the reason for me not issuing a solo statement on Monday, though I replied to the press queries I received,” Smith wrote. “In my opinion, a joint press release reflected the grave concerns of several rapporteurs and was an appropriate response to such a serious high profile death.”

Smith closed by saying she is engaged in dialogue with the government on “a number of issues” and has “generally received responses from the government to all my queries.”

“There have, however, been no responses over the last year to letters of allegation and urgent appeals,” she wrote, referring to the tools available to rapporteurs to raise issues of concern with governments.

Human rights consultant Billy Tai speculated as to whether this remark hinted at a change of strategy.

“It’s as though they’ve been trying to create dialogue and they didn’t succeed, so what can they do now? We’ll have to wait and see,” he said. “I think it is very important for the rapporteur to be seen to be doing something and I don’t think she’s doing that very well.”

Rupert Abbott, the former deputy Asia director of Amnesty International, said a public back and forth on the controversy would be unhelpful, but that he hoped the message had gotten through that “a more accessible, active and vocal special rapporteur on Cambodia is needed now more than ever”.

Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson – who previously said he had raised concerns with Smith to no avail – was more blunt, describing Smith’s performance in emailed comments as a “triumph of the UN form over serious human rights content”.

“While there is a technical assistance element in her mandate, she should not prioritize it over the need to monitor and speak out about the worsening human rights situation in Cambodia,” Robertson wrote. “Sadly for the people of Cambodia, so far she’s demonstrated that she’s not ready for the kind of challenges that this mandate involves.”

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