A United Nations envoy said Wednesday that the fundamentals of governance and human rights have not changed in Cambodia despite the new political environment, calling for independent monitoring institutions.
Surya P. Subedi, the U.N.’s special envoy on Cambodian human rights, made the proposal while addressing the world body's Human Rights Council in Geneva for the last time during his six-year term, which ends in March 2015.
“The situation in Cambodia today is very different from the one that existed when I assumed the Special Rapporteur mandate five years ago,” he said in a statement issued by the U.N.’s human rights office.
“Having said that, what Cambodia needs now is to adopt a strong human rights infrastructure that can support far-reaching and meaningful reform.”
During his term, Subedi has written four reports on judicial, parliamentary, electoral, and land reform to help the Cambodian government transform state institutions that protect and promote human rights.
His last report to the council focused on the independence of monitoring institutions, which he believes to be lacking in the country.
“If I were to choose one recommendation as the sum of all others I have made during my time on the mandate, it would be that the government should reconsider its opposition to independent institutions,” he said.
“Only when such independence is guaranteed, of the judiciary, the National Election Committee, and parliament itself, Cambodia will be on the path towards real reform.”
In June, following a fact-finding mission to assess Cambodia’s progress in the areas of human rights and democracy, Subedi had urged the government to create an independent national human rights institution to “champion the people’s rights and hold public institutions accountable.”
The body would make policy recommendations to the government, protect and defend people’s rights, and investigate human rights violations.
At the time, he warned that if such reforms did not take effect soon, Cambodia risks a return to violence.
He also said his investigations led him to believe that the nation’s judicial, legislative, and executive branches are ineffective at promoting and protecting people’s rights.
Subedi’s comments on Wednesday came about two months after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen agreed to implement key electoral and other reforms in a deal with opposition leader Sam Rainsy, president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
After months of negotiations, elected CNRP lawmakers agreed to end a nearly year-long boycott of parliament when Hun Sen accepted the party’s proposal to overhaul the government-appointed National Election Committee (NEC).
The NEC, which supervises the country’s national elections, had declared Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) the victor in disputed July 2013 elections tainted by accusations of vote rigging.
But U.S.-based Human Rights Watch pointed out that the deal between the two politicians omitted human rights and judicial reforms.
In the meantime, some political pundits have questioned Hun Sen’s sincerity in making the changes to which he agreed to steer Cambodia away from what has been perceived as a system riddled with corruption.
In response to Subedi’s statement, CPP lawmaker and National Assembly spokesman Chheang Von told RFA’s Khmer Service that the CPP and CNRP were working on a joint proposal to deal with the financing of political parties that win seats in parliament.
But he pointed out that if the government financed the parties, it might have to impose additional taxes on citizens to pay for it.
“This is an issue that we need to discuss—whether to place another burden upon the people,” he said, adding that the CPP currently receives funding from donors.
Chheang Von also said that parliament would vote on the amendment to the constitution to make the NEC a constitutional institution after the Cambodian religious festival Pchum Ben ends this week.
Subedi noted that several ongoing human rights problems still remain unresolved in Cambodia, including the plight of those asked to leave their land to make way for development projects and violations of the rights of people on the margins of society.
He also raised concerns about restrictions on the freedom of nongovernmental organizations and trade unions and the flow of Internet information under the current legislative process, as well as the persecution of trade unions and political opposition members who faced criminal charges.
Despite these obstacles, he said Cambodians had “found their voice,” and the country was “on the cusp of historical changes that could usher in a new era for human rights protection,” according to the statement.
Subedi encouraged the government to press ahead with changes in a positive direction and called upon the international community to lend a watchful eye and helping hand.
“It is the implementation of meaningful reform that will demonstrate the tangible progress to the people of Cambodia, as well as the international community, necessary to show that Cambodia no longer needs this mandate,” he said.
But Chheang Von told RFA that the U.N. envoy criticized the government only because he wants to be famous, and that it will take time to improve democracy in the country.
He went on to say that the government doesn't need nongovernmental organizations working on human rights, but rather more educational opportunities for Cambodian villagers.
“Human rights don’t fall from the sky, so we can’t accept this statement,” he said. “[Surya Subedi] needs to study more about Cambodia.”
In Sept. 2013, the U.N. renewed the mandate for the special envoy position for Cambodia for an additional two-year term.
Before Subedi leaves his position, he will travel to Cambodia in January, with the results of the mission to be reported to the Human Rights Council by his successor.
Reported by Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.