The origin of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) field presence in Cambodia can be traced back to October 1993.

In accordance with Article 17 of the Agreement on a Comprehensive Political Settlement of the Cambodia Conflict, integral to the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, Resolution 1993/6 of the then Commission on Human Rights was adopted without a vote and with the approval of the UN Economic and Social Council, to “request the Secretary-General to ensure continued UN human rights presence in Cambodia after the expiry of the mandate of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), inter alia through the operational presence of the Centre for Human Rights”. The human rights centre, including its Cambodia office, was then officially blended with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The presence and mandate of the OHCHR are governed by a biennial resolution of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), and a bilateral agreement, aka MoU, with the Cambodian government. The latest MoU for the Implementation of a Technical Cooperation Programme on Human Rights was renewed on December 2020. The MoU is therefore subject to reconsideration later this year. It has been three decades since the OHCHR has been present in the Country. When should this MoU and the OHCHR field presence in Cambodia end? This may depend on whether the improved situations suffice the causes. To answer this question inevitably invites the relevant policy and decision makers to look at the impact and implication engendered by the cooperation programs and their implementors.

It is worth recalling that during the 51st Session of the HRC, more than 50 countries, besides lauding efforts, progress and achievements that Cambodia has achieved in promoting and protecting human rights in wide-ranging spheres, welcomed the country’s positive cooperation with the UN human rights mechanisms, including through the 11th renewal of the OHCHR field office. During the session, the UN Secretary-General report A/HRC/51/63, entitled “role and achievements of the OHCHR in assisting the Government and people of Cambodia in the promotion and protection of human rights”, was presented. The UN Secretary-General himself “acknowledges the positive engagement of the Government [of Cambodia] with OHCHR”.

Mr. Francesco Motta, UN Human Rights Chief of OHCHR Asia, Pacific, Middle East and North Africa branch indicated, “We look forward to the renewal of our country office agreement and reporting further concrete progress to the Council during the 54thsession.”

The said report apprises in details of the OHCHR’s delivery of technical assistance and advisory services to “various government ministries, the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, the National Committee against Torture, the Disability Action Council, the National Social Protection Council and other governmental and civil society actors”. The main work of the OHCHR in Cambodia is prioritised in four thematic pillars, namely, (1) increasing implementation of the international human rights mechanisms outcomes (2) integrating human rights in sustainable development (3) strengthening the rule of law and accountability for human rights violations and (4) enhancing and protecting civic space and people’s participation. To realise the above key objectives, the OHCHR has discharged its mandate in “human rights monitoring and analysis, protection, interaction with and the provision of technical assistance to the host Government, national authorities, civil society, victims and other relevant counterparts through targeted technical cooperation activities, capacity-building and public reporting”. Concretely, the OHCHR has continued its support in the process of drafting a Law on the Establishment of a National Human Rights Institution (NHRI) in line with the Paris Principles, supported efforts by 31 indigenous peoples’ communities to secure collective land titles, launched a programme focused on improving protections for human rights defenders, etc. The OHCHR discloses that it needs nearly $2.6 million annually to run its field operation.

Nonetheless, when it comes to the OHCHR’s “human rights monitoring and analysis and “public reporting” or “Documentation and Information” roles, most skepticism and criticism are drawn out of the OHCHR’s alleged practice of selectivity, politicisation, double standard, unbalanced reporting, interference, etc. For instance, in an HRC 51 General Debate Item 10, the Cambodian Permanent Representative in Geneva deplored, “Despite the government’s genuine dialogues, we regret that the [OHCHR] report does not set the record straight on many fronts. The report contains several factual errors despite our comments provided.”

In this same meeting, a group of 09 countries called through their Joint Statement stressing, “The work of the OHCHR should be guided by the principles of universality, objectivity, impartiality, transparency and non-selectivity. […] it is imperative that the OHCHR deliver its mandate in conformity with its founding Resolution (A/RES/48/141), placing the OHCHR to function within the UN Charter and under the obligation to respect the sovereignty and domestic jurisdiction of the state. The OHCHR should rely solely on objective and verified facts, taking into account the factual and legal grounds duly-submitted by the state concerned.”

Similar calls were also heeded by 69 countries in the HRC 51 Agenda Item 2, whereas other 20 countries stressed, “We are deeply concerned that the OHCHR, without the authorisation of the Human Rights Council and the consent of the country concerned. […] We are deeply worried that it will undermine dialogue and cooperation in the field of human rights, and exaggerate the existing trend of politicisation and polarisation at the Human Rights Council.” When verifying the report, A/HRC/51/63, you may find out that their above rhetoric is not baseless. The report is just fraught with allegations and unfair judgment and lacks the factual and legal grounds submitted by the country concerned. As a product of the OHCHR field office, such reports reach the readers so fast. They can twist the facts, discourage the state’s effort, and jeopardise both bilateral and multilateral cooperation among actors. Similar insisting and long-standing calls for the OHCHR correctional manners can be heard more vividly in the meetings under the Council’s Agenda Items 3, 4, 5, and even Item 6 at every session. Yet, the such instance of the OHCHR’s malpractice still exists to date. This concern generally makes certain countries in question scared of the politicisation of human rights issues against them, which consequently inclines them to neither accept nor cooperate with the OHCHR. An obvious example can be drawn from the case of Sri Lanka that categorically rejected the resolution entitled “Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka”, whose particularly Operative Paragraph (OP)8 is decided “to extend and reinforce the capacity of the [OHCHR] to collect, consolidate, analyse and preserve information and evidence and to develop possible strategies”. Sri Lanka rationalised its opposition to the resolution that “[the element] violates its sovereignty.”

Genuine cooperation is a two-way and positive-sum approach. To fully reap the benefits from their engagement and engender real impact on the ground, Cambodia and the OHCHR may consider the following recommendations.

Cambodia should continue to renew the MoU for the Implementation of a Technical Cooperation Programme on Human Rights with the OHCHR. However, in accordance with the MoU’s Article 2 (Paragraph 2) and Article 6 (Paragraph 2), the Parties, before and after each renewal, shall evaluate the progress and develop a working program, based on SMART criteria and with periodical follow-up meetings, out of the accepted UPR recommendations, taken into account as well the ten-point “Cambodian Human Rights Action Agenda” recently proposed by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, and general comments/recommendations from the treaties body. The identified human rights issues should then be explicitly listed in the MoU or the annexed Term of Reference to guide the tangible outcome of implementing the cooperation program. In the negotiated MoU, Cambodia may emphasise, “Technical cooperation must always be demand-driven with the full consent of the host government and be aligned with the national priorities and efforts to implement the accepted UPR recommendations. It must neither be used as a tool for advancing political agenda nor a pretext for interference in domestic affairs.”Cambodia may also be cautious and request the OHCHR’s transparency of any external or unearmarked funding, aimed at sponsoring the OHCHR’s documentation and reporting work.

No country has perfect human rights records. This does not imply that concluding the OHCHR field presence in Cambodia or elsewhere is far from possible. It could be truly perhaps not, in the short run, be it the next 6 years. With her resolute commitment to continuing to promote and protect human rights, Cambodia, as applauded by many delegations in the HRC 51, is proven on the right path towards her bright future of growth, well-being, and equity. The nearly-perfect human rights record is probable for Kingdom. That’s when the state’s efforts and impact of OHCHR field presence may saturate the ground, and the Country can open the door for the OHCHR to leave. The OHCHR departure will alleviate the UN liquidity crisis.

Va Veasna is a human rights observer based in Geneva, Switzerland. The views expressed in the article are solely his own.