Cambodian Rights Groups Say They’ll Watch For Results From New UN Envoy on Human Rights

Cambodia-based rights groups say they are hoping that a newly appointed UN envoy to Cambodia for human rights will bring results in talks with the government of the Southeast Asian country, where years of diplomatic dialogue have failed to halt a crackdown on democracy and civil society.
Thai academic Vitit Muntarbhorn, who replaced former UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Cambodia Rhona Smith earlier this year, spoke on Wednesday in a first virtual meeting online with Cambodian Interior Minister Sar Kheng.
Writing next day on his Facebook page, Sar Kheng said the talks with Vitit promised “frank dialogues and discussions” in the future on a range of issues of concern, including government measures taken to control the spread of COVID-19, the country’s crowded prisons, democracy, and the reform of the country’s NGO laws.
In a second meeting on Thursday, Vitit also spoke with Keo Remy, head of the government’s Human Rights Committee, the Committee said on its own Facebook page.
Reached by RFA for comment, Vitit declined to discuss topics addressed in the two meetings, referring a reporter instead to media contacts in his office who did not respond to requests by Thursday evening.
If accurately reported by Sar Kheng, the talks held on Wednesday reflected topics of genuine concern in Cambodia, where there are ongoing restrictions on civil and political rights, said Soeung Senkaruna—a senior human rights worker and spokesperson for the rights group ADHOC—speaking to RFA on June 24.
Vitit’s work in Cambodia may not bring quick breakthroughs or improvements in the country’s human rights situation, though, Soeung Senkaruna said.
“We often see that UN Special Rapporteurs on Human Rights hold many meetings and ‘frank discussions’ [with government officials], but nothing significant ever comes from these,” he said. “Our problems always remain the same.”
“It would be great if things did change in our society, so that our country would not become subject to sanctions from the international community and the free world,” he added.
Reporting the facts
Speaking to RFA in interviews after Vitit secured his appointment in April, human rights workers in Cambodia said they hold little hope that the new UN rapporteur can solve Cambodia’s rights problems just by maintaining good relations with Cambodia’s government—the main cause, they said, of the country’s human rights issues.
“I don’t expect that he will fix all these problems,” said labor rights activist Moeun Tola, adding, “But I do expect him to work professionally by reporting the facts about the actual human rights situation existing in the country.”
“He will have to gauge and balance his own relations with the government, just to keep in contact, but failing to mention factual evidence in his reports in order to maintain good relations won’t solve any problems,” he said.
Previous UN rapporteurs Suriya Prasad Subedi and Rhona Smith used a gentle approach with the government at first, “but things didn’t work out,” and as a result they began to voice stronger criticisms and more critical reporting, he said.
Am Sam Ath, a spokesperson for the Cambodian rights group Licadho, said that talks and dialogue can sometimes be effective in solving problems, but that more critical approaches are sometimes required to force improvements or changes in government behavior.
“I think that the approach [Vitit] should adopt is to uphold the UN’s principles on human rights and then adjust his approach to talks using his negotiation skills and based on the circumstances at the time.”
“In this way, he can point to violations of international rights standards in ways that encourage Cambodia to change, and to respect human rights,” he said.
Crackdown on opposition
A crackdown on the opposition, media, and civil society by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia since 1985, has caused Phnom Penh’s ties with the UN, the U.S., and the European Union to deteriorate.
The main opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was banned and its leader Kem Sokha arrested in late 2017, allowing Hun Sen’s ruling party to win every parliamentary seat in 2018 elections, drawing international criticism and EU trade sanctions.
The government has also come down hard on CNRP supporters, environmental activists, and journalists.
British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab in a visit to Phnom Penh this week said that in talks with the government he raised the charges against Kem Sokha, who remains in legal limbo, as well as the recent arrest and imprisonment of activists from the Mother Nature environmental group.

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