AFTER a seven-month vacancy the United Nations continues to delay the appointment
of a replacement for Special Representative for Human Rights in Cambodia, Thomas
Hammar-berg, who left office on Dec 31.
The delay has raised serious concerns among observers and human rights groups about
the future of the Special Representative's mandate. Some fear it may be abolished
According to sources close to the process, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan holds
a shortlist of at least eight candidates for the position. But a final appointment
has been postponed till an agreement over a Khmer Rouge tribunal is signed with the
New York and Phnom Penh have sparred for months over how to set up a trial to prosecute
former KR leaders. Last month the two sides agreed on a Memorandum of Understanding
that will be signed after the National Assembly passes a law establishing the tribunal.
During his time in office, Hammarberg took a substantial and active interest in the
negotiations, but his involvement was not always popular with the UN's Legal Office
in New York
Therefore, Annan has chosen to leave the position of the Special Representative vacant
till the tribunal matter is settled, to centralize control over the negotiations
within his own office.
"People in Hammarberg's position tend to be independent-minded. They are seconded
from other jobs, without UN pay, so can't be made to toe the line," says Cambodia
scholar Steve Heder.
"Since anyone with a serious commitment to human rights would be unhappy with
the deal that has been made, it would be hard to guarantee that a new Special Representative
would not question it, perhaps even in public."
Meanwhile, local and international human rights groups point out that the assignment
of the Special Representative stretches far beyond a KR tribunal and say there is
an urgent need to appoint a replacement for Hammarberg immediately.
"The fact that Hammarberg's position has gone vacant for more than half a year
is a matter of utmost concern to Human Rights Watch," says Sara Colm of international
human rights organization Human Rights Watch.
"High-level interventions by the Special Representative, together with advocacy
by local and international NGOs, are still needed to help advance the cause of human
rights in Cambodia, where the problems of impunity, mob killings, torture and forced
evictions have not gone away."
Marlene Alejos, Assistant to the Special Representative and Chief of Monitoring and
Protection at the UN Center for Human Rights in Phnom Penh, acknowledges that the
absence of a Special Representative has imposed limitations on the UN's human rights
work in Cambodia.
"The Special Representative is able to address human rights issues at the highest
level of government. When the position is left vacant, it means that there is one
less high-profile mechanism to address these issues and that also renders local human
rights organizations more vulnerable," she said.
During the vacancy, the Center has had to advocate the cause of human rights in Cambodia
through other UN channels, particularly the Human Rights Commission's special rapporteurs
on specific subjects such as torture, involuntary disappearances, freedom of opinion
and expression and toxic waste.
The Center has also assembled a compilation of previous recommendations by Hammarberg
and his predecessor, to be distributed when the UN General Assembly convenes in September.
Normally, the Special Representative would address the Assembly personally, but this
year that slot will be empty.
A UN source suggests that the absence of Hammarberg's future replacement at the Assembly
may jeopardize the whole mandate of the Special Representative.
"The Cambodian Government may use the opportunity to try to neutralize the mandate,
pointing out that Cambodia has already been without a Special Representative for
so long now. It will be very interesting to see what Prime Minister Hun Sen and National
Assembly President Prince Ranariddh will say in their speeches in New York,"
the UN source says.
Also, the reduced attention on human rights in Cambodia creates a risk that the mandate
for a Special Representative will not be extended by the UN Human Rights Commission
at its annual session in Geneva in April next year.
"It can disappear very quickly and we have seen it happen with other mandates
before. The mandate for a Special Representative is a privilege and one that it is
not going to stay there by itself. It needs to be protected and promoted," said
the UN source.
Only substantial lobbying in both New York and Geneva by local and international
organizations will ensure that the mandate is not canceled or watered down.
Likewise, the UN source suggested that human rights groups ask to review the profiles
of the current candidates to avoid an appointment that is part of a larger political
game and not entirely in the interest of the human rights cause.
"All it takes to kill the mandate of the Special Representative is really to
appoint the wrong person," the source says.
Among the candidates on the current shortlist is one from Japan. When the mandate
of the Special Representative was extended in Geneva this year, the resolution was
brought forward by Japan. Japan is also the largest financial donor to Cambodia.