A British international human rights law professor could soon be appointed the next UN special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, becoming the first woman to ever hold the position.
Professor Rhona Smith, who works at the University of Northumbria and is also a visiting professor at Pannasastra University here in Cambodia, was recommended by the UN Human Rights Council’s Consultative Group on appointing special mandate holders last month as its top choice for the position.
HRC president Joachim Ruecker will announce his official decision, which is based on the Consultative Group’s recommendation and further consultations, on March 27, the final day of the rights council’s current session.
If appointed, Smith would be the United Nations' first female rights envoy to the Kingdom. Five men have successively been appointed to the role since the UN first established a special representative to monitor human rights in Cambodia in 1993.
Surya Subedi, the Nepalese law professor who currently holds the position, is set to step down imminently after serving a maximum six-year term.
Smith, 45, has worked in the Kingdom with the Raoul Wallenberg Institute as an independent consultant for their capacity-building programs in the academic and justice sectors.
The Consultative Group said they were “impressed by her in-depth knowledge of the country [and] her extensive contacts with different Cambodian stakeholders”.
It also noted that she presented during an interview a “clear vision” as to how as rights envoy, a position which has drawn plenty of flak from Cambodian officials in the past, she would “engage and build a constructive dialogue” with the government.
The Consultative Group’s second and third preferences for the position were Irish human rights law professor Michael O’Flaherty and Indian lawyer and former Cambodia UN rights office deputy director Ravindran Daniel Justin.
In an email yesterday, Smith said she was “honoured” to have been shortlisted for the role but declined to comment further.
“I have no knowledge of the current view of the Council, other than the Consultative Group report … and it would obviously be inappropriate for me to pre-empt any decision they may make by commenting further at this stage,” she said.
Opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua, a former minister for women’s affairs and a prominent rights activist, yesterday said it would be a “positive development” if Smith was appointed, given that majority of victims of rights abuses in Cambodia are women and children.
“For example, with land issues, human trafficking and violence against women,” she said.
“The victims are women, and there is a gender issue here. I am very pleased that she might be the chosen one.”
Sochua also suggested that the government may be “more willing to accept the criticisms from the head of a UN organisation who speaks on behalf of victims who are [mostly] women [when] she herself is a woman”.
In response to whether a female rights envoy might face gender-based criticisms from top government officials – as Sochua herself has had to deal with in the past – the CNRP lawmaker said she didn’t think it would be a problem.
“I think we have all learned a lesson. I’m not worried about that, not at all.”