Yash Ghai: 'I am struck by how polarizing the issue of human rights has become and by the relative lack of dialogue regarding human rights.'
The UN Secretary-General's Special Representative for Human Rights, Yash Ghai, is
making his second visit to Cambodia. Ghai, a Kenyan lawyer with broad experience
in the human rights arena, spoke to Post reporter Cat Barton about his current visit
and what he sees as his role in on-going debates about Cambodia's development.
Post: What are the implications of recent political developments for human rights?
It is hard to tell whether recent events signal opportunities for a new phase of
reform, or whether they are just political maneuvers. This is obviously a very important
issue in determining future strategies for human rights in Cambodia, but currently
I do not have a concrete view on this issue; I am still talking to many people. However,
if it is a real change of heart then it does open up opportunities for reform.
Post: How do you view your role in Cambodia?
I make my own problems. To some extent my role is unclear - I am here to work for
the government and the people of Cambodia. And, of course, to provide an annual report
to the UN. It depends on how I define the role. I offer advice; I comment on developments.
If there were to be a very serious case I could contact the Secretary General. I
see my role as working with different sectors - NGOs, government, independent institutions.
I hope to be able to help generate debates on human rights and democracy.
Post: Have you encountered difficulties?
I am struck by how polarizing the issue of human rights has become and by the relative
lack of dialogue regarding human rights. It seems to me very unfortunate that this
is the case. One should be able to discuss human rights - discuss the importance
of economic and social rights, examine how institutions can become more responsive,
look at how human rights have implications for participation and accountability.
For many of the government's policies, for example the "rectangular" policy
and the commitment to the millennium goals - human rights are integral. Yet when
you mention human rights you can see there is a tension.
I am hoping to promote discussion. The last time I was here I was able to speak at
a university and to participate in good discussions with students. I hope in the
future to see more dialogue between government, civil society actors and academics.
I hoped, and still hope, that I can have a constructive and positive relationship
with the government - upon whom falls the responsibility for protecting human rights.
Post: To what extent have you been able to promote constructive dialogue thus far?
My first visit to Cambodia in this role was in late November/early December last
year. I arrived at a time when public space was shrinking, for example through the
removal of parliamentary immunity, which was perhaps not an auspicious moment to
open up wide-ranging discussions with the government. Moreover, Hun Sen couldn't
see me - he became ill at the last moment. So I wrote to him expressing my wish to
play a constructive role. I have very much experience in this field - I have drafted
constitutions, litigated on human rights issues - I have experience which I would
be very happy to make available to the government here. If recent political changes
are opening up space for reform then I would be very keen to make a contribution.
Post: Why do you think human rights have become such a polarizing issue in Cambodia?
I am not sure. I have spoken to people who say that it is a result of the fact NGOs
have a political agenda. Yes, NGOs have a political agenda to some extent - rights
are about politics. Not party politics, but politics in a much broader sense. But
I have heard that some NGOs have a party political agenda - maybe this has made the
Another explanation could be that the government has not done enough to promote human
rights in this country. They don't have a specific ministry as exists in other countries.
The judiciary here is not so independent and has not promoted and protected human
In this situation, there is a very heavy responsibility on NGOs to stand up for human
rights and this can make it seem like you oppose the government. This is unfortunate
- if it seems you stand up for human rights you oppose the government. This is not
a view that is shared by the entire government. But it is a shame if to have a constructive
relationship with the government you have to take human rights off the agenda.
Post: What would you most like to achieve in Cambodia?
It is hard to say, there is a lot to be done - both by me and by the government.
They say they are committed to development; I would like to discuss their concept
Human rights play a key role in development. We increasingly speak of "human
development," but what is human development except human beings? The ability
of human beings to participate in decisions that affect them, to debate, to express
themselves - which obviously links to the right to freedom of expression - to read
or write, to work with others with similar interests - which leads to the right to
freedom of association. This is what development is. Human rights are an integral
part of development.
I would like to see more discussion regarding what the government is trying to achieve.
There is a school of thought that holds human rights and democracy to be obstacles
to development. I would like to see careful debate around this issue to clear up
Post: Do human rights have a practical role to play in Cambodia's ongoing development?
Some rights are absolute - the right to life, the right to not be tortured. But many
others are a question of balancing different interests. Human rights provide a framework
for balancing different interests on the basis of principles. For example, the question
of freedom of expression versus national security. Human rights provide a good framework
for balancing these different interests.
On a specific, technical level, there are institutions in Cambodia which need reform.
It is essential for good, fair government, good policies. If you have institutions
operating well they give a sense of stability and security. In my view you can't
have stability without respect for human rights, without rules.
In Cambodia now they are already making rules, for example regarding land and agriculture.
In every area there is debate and reform, yet if you don't have an adequate framework
for these discussions then it can be problematic. It could lead to one element being
emphasized-for example certain economic policies which could lead to misery for some.
We need general debate regarding the values Cambodia wants to live by.
Post: Is it possible for an international concept of human rights to provide a framework
for discussion within Cambodia?
Cambodia has its own constitution; the constitution adopted in 1993 was made by Cambodians
for Cambodia. If you look at this document, drawn up at a crossroads, it provides
a very good record of the aims at the time - of the aims regarding how Cambodia should
My experience is that people who have lived through huge traumas in their countries
value human rights very strongly. The problems they have experienced in the past
stem from the lack of respect for human rights. I think it is the constitution in
Cambodia, more so than international treaties, which is the document that Cambodia
has to guide its development.
Post: Is there recognition of the practical importance of human rights within development
Human rights touch on every aspect of our lives nowadays - freedom of expression,
the right to education, health care, collective bargaining. Human rights are not
just words in a treaty; they are how we live, how we look after our children.
I have spoken to ministers here who have recognition of the importance of rights
in a broad way. A lot of people realize the importance of rights. Rights also underlie
the dialogue between the international community and the Cambodian government. Internationally,
states get a reputation regarding their level of respect for human rights. This is
always a background factor if not in the foreground.