T HE Cambodian office of the United Nations Center for Human Rights (UNCHR) may
still be closed - if the government requests that - when it comes up for UN
review next March.
"If Cambodia wants us to leave, we will leave
immediately," office director Daniel Premont said last week.
But he was
confident the Cambodian government would not seek the removal of the office,
whose mandate is due to be reviewed by the UN Commission on Human Rights in
Geneva in March.
"I'm sure we will have Cambodia supporting a resolution
continuing the presence of the center," Premont said of next year's
Asked whether the office would have to watch its step over the
next 10 months until that meeting, he said: "Of course. But to do things as
A recent UN agreement to consult directly with the Co-Prime
Ministers over the office's activities meant there was no need for "hesitation"
in its work.
"There will be no problems, no misunderstandings - well,
maybe problems, but no misunderstandings."
Premont also expressed his
belief that Cambodia's human rights climate was improving.
"If I would
have to qualify Cambodia, I would say the human rights situation is quite good
here. You can quote me, because I believe it."
But - in an apparent
indication of internal division within the UNCHR office - he said that "some
colleagues... think the situation is regressing".
However, he said his
conclusion was based on his experience at the UN in Geneva, which monitors human
rights in all countries.
The future of the UNCHR's Cambodian office has
been clouded with doubt since the Co-Prime Ministers wrote to the UN in March
seeking its removal at the end of the year.
Premont - repeating what
government officials have since said - described the PM's letter as a "proposal"
and not a "request".
The letter, he said, had been the result of a "big
misunderstanding" over the office's role.
That had been resolved by a
five-point agreement struck between UN Special Envoy Marrack Goulding - in
Cambodia early this month to investigate whether the office should remain after
March 1996 - and the government.
The points were:
- "Informal confidential consultative meetings" be held between the co-PMs and
the office's leadership every few months.
- A more formal meeting be held once a year before UN Commission on Human
Rights meetings, to ensure a "full exchange of views".
- The office take a more "pro-active" approach when writing reports on
Cambodia, submitting draft versions to the government for attention and
- and 5) That seminars on the UNCHR office's work be run for government
officials, and that one or two officials visit the UN Commission's Geneva
headquarters each year.
Premont said the agreement was "really excellent for us" because "we will be
able to go directly to the Prime Ministers to give them information".
"We used to check our facts on a local level. Now we will check them
with the two Prime Ministers to see whether they have more information or if
they can tell us where to go to find more information."
Premont said the
government wanted the office to concentrate on "technical assistance" - human
rights training, education and legal advice - rather than the "evaluation" or
"analysis" of human rights violations.
"This is fine for us. This is the
future of the country - disseminating information about how we are functioning,
about human rights NGOs...
"We are not a watchdog. We are nothing but the
usual UN technical assistance."
But he denied that the office would
reduce its monitoring of human rights violations. Although only a "very small
part" of its work, such as monitoring was "the basis of our
"How can we provide education, if we don't know what the
[human rights] situation is? It's clear that evaluation or monitoring is part of
the technical assistance."
However, Premont was adamant that the office's
role was not to "investigate" human rights abuses, but to "try to establish the
facts" about them.
"This is not at all an investigation.... The only
thing we can do is to ask the questions and take down the answers."
disputed the suggestion the office had "investigated" the case of secret prisons
in Battambang - widely believed to have been a prime reason for government anger
at it - saying it had only recorded allegations and sought responses to
Premont said the government had at times been upset because it
considered it had been given inadequate notice of the office's reports on
alleged human rights abuses.
From now on, the office would provide drafts
of its reports several months before they were published, so "if the government
can give us facts, and if we are wrong, we can revise the report".
will be no more surprises. They were surprised, for instance, by [the office's
statements on] threats to MPs. The information was sent to the government but
maybe there was a miscommunication."
Any problems with "the way we
present the facts" could be solved by exchanging information with the
government. But the final version of the office's reports would remain up to the
office to decide.
Premont believed the government understood that closing
the office - and having the human rights situation monitored by the UN from
Geneva - was not in its interests.
"I can establish facts from Geneva,
but I would have to rely on whatever [sources of information]- the Phnom Penh
Post, the Cambodia Daily, Asia-Watch and human rights NGOs" that are
Other Phnom Penh human rights workers agree that withdrawing
the office to Geneva would be retrograde, though for other reasons.
UN Commission in Geneva is a joke," said one. "It's a waste of money, it's a
farce. It has never shown it is any good at changing the behavior of any
government in the world.
"That's why the UNCHR is here. We can't have the
Geneva mentality - the Geneva mentality is the bureaucratic
Such observers doubt whether the government has lost its
desire to see the office closed. They say it is a matter of time before a
pretext is found to mount another challenge to the office's
Premont said he was told at a May 12 meeting with Foreign
Minister Ung Huot that the office could remain "indefinitely", its future to be
First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh,
meanwhile, has publicly spoken of the office having to comply with its original
mandate, particularly in regard to technical assistance.