T HE United Nations has been accused of breaking promises and being morally and
professionally inept in dealing with human rights in Cambodia.
"I know in
my heart of hearts that we have failed Cambodia," former UNCHR officer-in-charge
Basil Fernando said in an interview with the Post on June 4.
said that the blame extended to the UN's human rights High Commissioner Jose
Iyalla Lasso, who is answerable only to UN Secretary-General Boutros
A tier of senior officials - including Daniel Premont, the
present director of the UNCHR in Phnom Penh, Boutros-Ghali's special
representative Justice Michael Kirby, and four named officials in Geneva - have
all contributed to the "moral bankruptcy" and mishandling of the UN's human
rights mission in Cambodia, he said.
"It is now time to speak out,"
Fernando said about the Cambodian field office, the first office of its kind in
the world to be set up by the UN.
Fernando resigned his job as chief
legal assistant and officer-in-charge last year, disgruntled at the performance
of Geneva in supporting the center. He is now executive director of the Asian
Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong.
Fernando said it was a "scandal"
how the "Geneva bureaucrats" handled the aftermath of the Sept 1994 shooting of
five-year-old Monica Oliveros, daughter of former UNCHR officer manager Luis
Geneva refused to pay the cost of Monica's airfare, medical
evacuation and hospital fees - "a shocking decision that has caused huge moral
problems within the office," Fernando said.
Luis Oliveros is
contemplating suing the UN to recover the cost of Monica's flight, and stay and
treatment in Bangkok.
Monica was kidnapped in downtown Phnom Penh by
Khmer gunmen, shot in the thigh and dumped bleeding near the National Museum. UN
documents say the shooting was probably in retaliation for work the UNCHR was
doing on secret army prisons in Battambang.
However, Geneva - with
profuse apologies - eventually refused to pay any costs for the stricken Monica,
saying she shouldn't have been with Oliveros in Phnom Penh in the first
Oliveros - and all other staff of the local UNCHR - had been
verbally assured that their contracts would include normal UN benefits for
families, he said.
Oliveros had to foot the bill - around $6,000 -
himself. He has now left the UN Human Rights Commission and is working for the
World Food Program in Rome.
Neither, it is understood, was the UN
prepared to repatriate the Oliveros' from Bangkok. Had Luis Oliveros not been
given a job in Rome, they would have been forced to fly back to Phnom Penh
because the UN rules dictated they had to be repatriated from their city of
"The little girl couldn't have come back to Cambodia," Fernando
said. "She was in a bad state, physically and mentally".
Fernando said most all of the UNCHR staff have family in Cambodia, and felt
Geneva's decision "was demoralizing and shocking".
"This is the most
horrifying aspect of human rights work in Cambodia... this incident has led to
an enormous problem of moral credibility," Fernando said.
"If this is how
we treat one of our own staff, what might we be expected to do in other
"If our bureaucrats are so dead or blind to this issue, how can
we be expected to take an interest in any other issue... this has created a huge
moral problem for the staff."
Fernando said the the UN had failed legally
- because it had been verbally agreed that the contracts would include family;
morally - as she was more than likely shot in relatiation for work being done in
the field "but about that there was only silence"; and as
"This little girl is going to suffer for a long time,
perhaps the rest of her life. There has to be an approach to help this little
girl through counseling. That is not just the responsibility of the parents," he
"The UN has not only failed in all its duties but have taken such a
crude attitude. The UN did not even convey its sympathy [to Luis]".
of letters" have been written by the Phnom Penh UNCHR office to Geneva - and
representations made by Kirby to Iyalla Lasso - to resolve the problem, Fernando
"Premont even put it in personal terms, saying to (Geneva post
chief John) Pace 'you have children too'. But everyone was taking their
instructions from the bureaucrats, then eventually communicating it to the field
Pressure by diplomats and embassies has also been brought to
bear, but even Iyalla Lasso and Kirby felt constrained and dominated by the
"Geneva bureaucrats," he said.
Fernando slammed the bureaucrats - out of
the control of UN technical experts and out of touch with the country they are
dealing with - as being the root of the problem.
Promises to help the
Cambodian government in many areas of reform were constantly made and broken "to
the point where I was embarrassed to talk to (Cambodian) ministers," Fernando
"They were promised help and we couldn't deliver" because Geneva
administrators had, because of their "red tape" mentality, hamstrung proposed
development and training projects, he said.
For many months the
bureaucrats refused to transfer $1 million in trust to the UNCHR office - money
earmarked for technical assistance projects, such as judicial training and
The bureaucrats consistently made slow, often negative
decisions, Fernando said.
All the Phnom Penh field office could properly
perform was the second part of its mandate - that of investigating and reporting
on human rights abuses.
"We would say 'You haven't got an independent
judiciary,' and that was it... we couldn't help them change like we promised and
like they (the Cambodians) wanted."
"If I was in the Cambodian
government's position, I would ask for the office to be closed too," he said of
the recent Cambodian request to do just that.
"The Cambodians opened
themselves up for foreigners to come in and train their judges and police, which
is a very big ideological and political risk."
"At the early stages [the
government] put people aside to deal with us, but now they are not. Why should
they? Just to receive another complaint, to be told they are not doing things
The UNCHR's mandate - helping human rights-related
institutional development, while at the same time monitoring the human rights
situation - was, and still is, compromised, he said.
The only technical
projects that have been started by the UNCHR have been by the "sheer
determination and initiative" of the local staff, Fernando said.
has not helped, they have only hindered," he said. Fernando's sentiments about
the UN bureaucracy are known to be shared in private by other UN workers, who
are in no position to speak out publicly.
The center has begun many
projects, including court training and a program of prison reforms. Staff have
been "hyperactive" - and successful - in trying to initiate as many projects as
they are able, dependent always on what money is available in the center's trust
fund from Geneva.
The Post understands that, with around $200 now left in
the bank until the next entitlement from Geneva, the center will struggle to pay
its fuel bill, let alone try to initiate another human rights project.
Fernando said it was not too late to change Geneva's handling of the center
"because this type of criticism is not just coming from Cambodia, but from
"The very idea of technical assistance is that we help...
you have to earn the right to criticize," he said.
However, other sources
say that the Cambodian government is not blameless for the UNCHR office being
unable to fully function according to its mandate.
The government has not
been proactive in asking for technical help, they said. However, they add,
because the UNCHR had no money, even if the Cambodian government had asked for a
large-scale project - for instance, to upgrade every prison in Cambodia - the
UNCHR would unlikely have been able to do it.
Fernando named four
officials in Geneva - Pace, Ibrahima Fall, Jose Gomez Del Prado and Francisca
Morotta - as being ineffective.
On behalf of Fall, Del Prado gave UNCHR
staff verbal agreements that family entitlements would be included in their
contracts, Fernando said. When that undertaking could not be confirmed in
writing, Michael Williams - who was to have been the center's first director -
resigned. "Both these gentlemen [Fall and Del Prado] owe a moral obligation to
explain this matter," he said. Morotta was a junior officer whose "inexperience
and superior Geneva attitudes contributed greatly to the mess that was
"With everyone dealing with this, including Pace and other
senior officials, I get the impression of smooth talkers who don't mean to do
anything," he said.
"That is very disturbing for the people here [in
Phnom Penh] trying to develop programs. If we want to do it, then do it alone,
don't expect any help from Geneva. That is exactly what has
"What has been done here is to the credit of the local staff.
But they have had no support, only restrictions imposed without
The specific problems of Cambodia - where "whole institutions
have been gutted" - "do not exisit in the minds of the Geneva
The UNCHR office called for leadership and decision-makers.
Fernando said the neither Premont, Del Prado, Pace nor others in charge had such
There was an obligation for Kirby to straighten the
situation out, especially after the Oliveros affair, Fernando said. However,
after Premont's appointment Kirby indicated "that everything will now be fine,"
Fernando said - "but, of course, its not."
To Premont, the Oliveros
affair was an embarrassment to be publicly hushed-up, he said.
Lasso had a mandate to reorganize the whole UN human rights operation "but even
he feels restrained by the Geneva bureaucracy," he said.
scandal hightlights what the UN is capable of doing elsewhere," Fernando
Premont refused to comment.