Outgoing UN human rights envoy says Kingdom now at critical point but has ‘come a long way’
Outgoing United Nations human rights envoy Surya Subedi will end his mandate in Cambodia with an optimistic view of the country’s future as he is confident that its people are no longer afraid to make their voices heard, he said at a final press conference yesterday.
But he warned that the government must “reconsider its aversion” towards independent institutions and real checks on its power if it truly wants to move forward on human rights and adequately respond to Cambodians’ demands.
“The institutions of the executive that are responsible for implementing government policy and protecting human rights must be held to their responsibilities by independent institutions responsible for monitoring their performance,” he said.
“This is the critical juncture at which I believe Cambodia now stands.”
He added that he hoped those responsible for at least five deaths during a crackdown on garment worker strikes in January last year would be brought to justice by the official end of his mandate in April, having been told during this visit the findings of the government investigation “will soon be referred to the courts”.
But citing some notable reforms that have taken place during his tenure, including the passing of three judicial laws last year, the recent overhaul of the National Election Committee, and the moratorium placed on new economic land concessions in 2012, Subedi said there were a number of “positive signs” that progress had been made.
“More ought to be done but we have come a long way over the past six years,” he said.
Subedi, a Nepali legal academic and barrister, is the longest-serving UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia and has reached the end of a maximum six-year term.
While he has taken some government flak during his mandate, Subedi has largely avoided the kind of deeply personal insults meted out to his predecessors.
His two immediate predecessors, Kenyan Yash Ghai and Austrian Peter Leuprecht, both resigned before completing their mandates after being lambasted by the government.
In an interview yesterday, Subedi admitted that, during one visit to Cambodia in May 2013, his wife had asked him to consider resigning from the position after protesters linked to the ruling party disrupted a public lecture he was delivering, bombarding him with abuse, in addition to demonstrating outside the UN rights office.
On the same visit, Om Yentieng, the head of the government’s human rights committee, accused him of being politically one-sided and worse than a European football referee.
But despite his wife’s urging, Subedi said the frosty reception emboldened him.
“I personally thought: I have a contribution to make, I have a contribution to make for the betterment of the people of Cambodia,” he said.
“I am not generally a quitter. I’m a fighter … Once I commit myself to doing something, I would like to give it my best.
“That’s why I decided to carry on, and I’m pleased that I did because over the past one or two years my hard work has started to bring
about results … many of them are on paper, but at least it’s better to have them on paper rather than no improvement.”
Despite his diplomatic approach, Subedi insisted that his position towards the government had not been any softer than his predecessors’.
“In private, I deliver my messages more strongly than I do in public,” he said.
Yentieng could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said he appreciated that Subedi had been “more understanding” than previous colleagues.
“He understands his role and responsibilities as a partner to help the government. I’m so sorry that non-CPP always manipulated the issues he raised,” he said.
Nonetheless, Siphan said Subedi’s criticisms that the government was averse to checks on its power, including a strictly independent judicial system, anti-corruption commission and other institutions, were not in line with reality.
“Professor Subedi has a background as a professor; he’s more idealistic and we understand that … he doesn’t understand that we try our best. The government through our reforms gives a little step forward to solve those kinds of
problems,” he said.
“There is a difference between the doer and the talker but, anyhow, we thank him for his efforts to help Cambodia.”