Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - UN treatment a "scandal" says former boss

UN treatment a "scandal" says former boss

UN treatment a "scandal" says former boss

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

prison reform.

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

Africa too."

"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

leadership capacity.

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.

"This whole

scandal hightlights what the UN is capable of doing elsewhere," Fernando


Premont refused to comment.


  • Massive stingrays may live in Mekong’s deep pools

    US scientists have suggested that unexplored deep pools in the Mekong River in an area of Stung Treng could potentially be home to significant populations of giant freshwater stingrays, one of the world’s largest freshwater fish species. This comes as a fisherman hooked a 180

  • PM takes time to meet, greet Cambodians living in the US

    After landing in the US ahead of the ASEAN-US Special Summit, Prime Minister Hun Sen was received by over 1,000 Cambodian-Americans including political analysts who welcomed him with greetings, fist bumps and selfies. Hun Sen also met with analyst Mak Hoeun, who had allegedly spoken ill

  • PM heads to Washington for ASEAN-US special summit

    Regional and international issues and how to bring the ASEAN-US partnership to another level will be discussed at length as Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ministers arrive in Washington, DC, for a special summit on May 12-13. During the trip, Hun Sen and ASEAN

  • National Assembly refutes EU resolution

    The National Assembly (NA) has hit back at a European Parliament resolution condemning the political and human rights situation in Cambodia, calling it another display of the Parliament’s “double standards”. Key points of the resolution include a warning that the Parliament could exclude the

  • Soaring global fuel prices: an opportunity for Cambodia?

    Cambodia is feeling the squeeze from the soaring global coal and oil prices. Electricity du Cambodge (EDC)would certainly be hurting from this reality, and most likely re-assessing its plans to add more coal power stations. EDC buys half of Cambodia’s electricity from plants

  • PM reflects on shoe throwing: Free speech or act of violence?

    Prime Minister Hun Sen on May 17 questioned whether a man who threw a shoe at him while he was in the US was exercising freedom of expression or if it was an act of hostility. Hun Sen was referring to an incident last week when