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Overcoming Cambodia fatigue

Surya Subedi, UN special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia
Surya Subedi, UN special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, speaks to the media during a press conference in Phnom Penh in January. AFP

Overcoming Cambodia fatigue

Last week, Surya Subedi, the United Nations' special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, presented his last report to the Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva. At first sight, the report may appear to give a positive outlook for the human rights situation in the country. But if you read it between the lines, you will find one of the most powerful indictments of the Cambodian government in years.

In a nutshell, it shows the government’s failure to implement key recommendations that the special rapporteur made during his six-year term. These include reforms to the judiciary, parliament and the electoral system, and land rights. Despite his unassailable long-term optimism, Subedi doubts the prospect for meaningful reform, not because of objective factors, constraints or challenges – which usually justify that a country truly seeking to improve its human rights record be assisted by the UN (a recent example is war-plagued Mali) – but because of a lack of political will on the part of the government.

In a worrying turn of events, as the HRC’s 27th session drew to a close on Friday, no resolution on Cambodia was adopted. Neither Japan, the traditional “sponsor” of resolutions on Cambodia, nor any other state felt it necessary to endorse the concerns highlighted by Subedi.

From a technical, procedural perspective, the HRC did not have to adopt a resolution on Cambodia this year, as the special rapporteur’s mandate was extended last year for two years, and a memorandum of understanding between the government and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, which was signed in early 2014, extended the latter’s presence in Cambodia. But the council’s failure to act is a bad signal. It sends a message to the government that it can get away with its appalling human rights record, in a year that witnessed a sharp increase in the government’s use of violence against its opponents and voices of dissent.

Other factors may have played a role, such as the fact that the UN and NGOs were busy with a range of other crises, from Syria to Iraq, Gaza and Ukraine. And, the story goes, in the past few years, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s advisers repeatedly told him not to care about the UN. It seems they were right.

The truth is that whatever evidence of widespread human rights violations and ongoing impunity is produced by UN expert bodies such as the special rapporteur, political bodies such as the HRC are simply tired of having to deal with the situation in Cambodia.

The country is at a critical juncture. Now, more than ever, a mandate of the special rapporteur is needed. Such a mechanism allows the UN to monitor the situation of human rights, to publicly report on it and to provide Cambodian human rights defenders and NGOs with vital attention and visibility.

No one can seriously argue that international assistance can by itself reform Cambodia. It’s not realistic nor desirable. No solution should be imposed on Cambodians. But the UN can, and must, assist the Cambodian people in finding their way to a critical mass of reforms that will ensure better governance, socioeconomic stability and a peaceful political transition.

What Cambodia needs is strong institutions, not strong men. We know from experiences in Syria, North Korea and elsewhere what usually happens when fathers hand power over to their sons.

On the one hand, Cambodian People’s Party officials would be right to try to prevent Hun Sen from imposing his son(s) as successor(s). On the other hand, Cambodia National Rescue Party officials are right when they claim to capture the Cambodian people’s aspirations for change. But in both cases, regime change must be more than a change of persons. It must be a change in the way that Cambodia is governed. And for that, a range of truly independent institutions must be put in place.

Now is perhaps the most important post-1991 moment in Cambodian politics. It is now that the country must establish institutions that will help it prevent a return to political violence and ensure a transition that will be more than a zero-sum game.

As Subedi wrote in his last report: “Change is coming to Cambodia faster than many had anticipated.”

The international community, in particular those states that can exert leverage on the government, must play their role by telling it that the time for delivering on its promises is now. The UN may be tired of Cambodia, but this is no time to rest.

Nicolas Agostini is the UN delegate at the International Federation for Human Rights.

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