A U.N. human rights envoy called on Cambodia’s government on Tuesday to form an independent institution to act as a focal point to “champion the people’s rights” and hold public institutions accountable.
United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia Surya Subedi said there seemed to be a widely shared consensus on the need for such a mechanism in the country.
But many he spoke to were concerned whether the body, if set up, would be truly independent under current political conditions.
Subedi made the proposal for the “National Human Rights Institution” in a statement at the end of his 10-day fact-finding mission to the country to assess the government’s progress in improving human rights and democracy.
He warned that if reforms are not effected soon, the country “runs the risk of a return to violence.”
Subedi said that his investigations had led him to believe that the country’s judicial, legislative and executive branches are ineffective at promoting and protecting the rights of the people.
“In this context, I thought it timely to make an inquiry on the need, or desirability of establishing an independent National Human Rights Institution in Cambodia,” he said.
The focus of the institution would be to “expand the scope of rights, act as a focal point to champion people’s rights, make policy recommendations to the Government and defend and protect people’s rights with the power to investigate cases of human rights violations.”
Subedi also called on the government to publishing findings of its probe into several incidents of deadly violence linked to crackdowns by security forces, including during a strike by garment workers in January in which police opened fire, leaving five people dead and scores wounded.
A day later, security forces violently dispersed supporters of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) from Freedom Park in the capital Phnom Penh and closed the site, which has been the focus of protests against Hun Sen's rule following the disputed elections.
Subedi said in his statement that that he was sorry to see barbed wire surrounding Freedom Park on his visit, giving “the impression that there has been an attempt to put democracy in a cage in Cambodia,” and called on the government to reinstate the right to peaceful assembly, including at the site, for all Cambodians.
But the envoy said the closure of the park was just one example of how Prime Minister Hun Sen’s administration and other government institutions had sought to stifle the voices of the people, according to feedback from government officials, human rights organizations, opposition leaders, and members of the public.
Subedi also warned the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) that if it “carries on with business as usual“ in parliament amid a boycott of the legislature by the opposition due to flawed elections, “this may have wider ramifications.”
The CNRP says it would only join parliament if the government holds fresh elections following allegations of fraud in the July 2013 polls. Negotiations between the two parties on reforms and other issues to break the political stalemate have not borne fruit.
Cambodia Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan dismissed Subedi’s claims that the National Assembly, or parliament, had failed the people of Cambodia, blaming the CNRP’s decision to boycott the legislature for the crisis.
“For the failure of the National Assembly … this problem was because the CNRP did not join and held the National Assembly hostage, claiming it was for the sake of democracy,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC) had declared CPP the winner of last year’s election with 68 seats in parliament to the CNRP’s 55, despite widespread claims of fraud, prompting the opposition to boycott.
Phay Siphan also said that “it is not the government’s duty to respond” to Subedi’s concerns over a heavy-handed response by authorities to public protests.
Subedi said that according to his investigations, “the judiciary did not seem to command the respect or trust of many people,” adding that for most ordinary people, the cost of accessing the courts was prohibitively expensive while marginalized groups experienced legal discrimination.
He also found “little direct linkage between the Members of the Parliament and the people,” saying that lawmakers in Cambodia’s National Assembly are “not able to hold the executive to account and thus are not able to represent the interest of their constituents in a meaningful manner.”
“People said to me that: ‘We can’t go to the courts, the parliament, or the executive. The system is broken. The system of public administration is not functioning’,” he said.
“I came to realize that the failure of the State institutions to uphold people’s rights is why, in every one of my missions, there are ordinary people coming to see me out of desperation to highlight their plight and petition me to help.”
He said the ineffectiveness of the country’s state institutions was also the reason why Cambodian’s bring petitions directly to Hun Sen’s home, to the United Nations and international embassies, and why they take to the streets to air their grievances.
Subedi suggested that if all sides were committed to successfully establishing an independent human rights institution, it could be achieved, but stressed that such a mechanism would only bring value “if its independence is guaranteed both in law and in practice,” in full conformity with the U.N.’s Paris Principles for the promotion and protection of human rights.
Risk of violence
Subedi said that he believed a real reform in the approach to governance “is inevitable” in Cambodia, but warned the government that if it was unreceptive to such a process, “the country runs the risk of a return to violence.”
“I sense a deep rooted frustration amongst the population, especially the youth, rural poor and other disfranchised and dispossessed people, about the lack of progress on some of the promised reforms,” he said.
Subedi will present his report on his latest mission, his 11th so far, to the U.N. Human Rights Council at its September 2014 session.
Reported by Tin Zakariya for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.