A United Nations human rights representative visited a Cambodian village community embroiled in a land dispute on Friday as part of a fact-finding mission for a set of wider reforms he is recommending to the country’s leadership.
The visit by Surya Subedi, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, came on the fourth day of a 10-day trip to the country, and followed a meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen where he expressed concerns about the country’s court system and a new law on nongovernmental organizations.
Subedi told RFA that it is important to take the complaints of Cambodia’s rural population into consideration in addition to speaking with high-level officials while forming an overview of the country’s human rights situation.
“I wanted to speak to people from all walks of life in Cambodia, and I wanted to see the villagers for myself to listen to them directly—their grievances—and then see for myself the area where they are living now and the conditions there as well. This is purely a fact-finding mission and … [for] information gathering,” Subedi said.
He traveled to the site, in central Kompong Chhnang province, to investigate a land dispute case in which NGO worker, who represented the villagers, had been jailed. The dispute was with a company owned by Lauk Chumteav Chea Kheng, the wife of Cambodia’s mining minister.
Sam Chankea was convicted in January of “defamation” against KDC International Co. after he told RFA in a 2009 interview that the company had committed an “act of violation” when it confiscated land from the villagers, because the provincial court had yet to rule on the disputed property.
The dispute dates back to 2002 when KDC International took possession of some 184 hectares (455 acres) of land from more than 100 families in the area.
“I now have a much better idea and information about the plight of the villagers and the disputed land," Subedi said.
"I will try to speak to government authorities about what they have been doing about this dispute and what the response of the other party has been and what other avenues there are to look after the interests of the villagers,” he said.
“I will consider whether I will need to intervene at certain levels of government authorities, and if I decide to do so, I will not hesitate to do so.”
Subedi said that he had a number of meetings scheduled with various ministers and that he planned to use the Pursat land case as an example of how the government must work to improve its human rights record.
In addition to meeting with the prime minister, Subedi has been busy since arriving in Cambodia on his fourth mission for the U.N., meeting with officials from the ruling party and from the opposition, observing trials, and speaking with NGOs.
On Wednesday, the special rapporteur met with Thun Saray, director of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) to discuss the concerns of domestic NGOs operating in the country.
“The problems include a land crisis that adversely affects the people. We propose a swift and satisfactory solution for those who have been affected by the land conflict,” Thun Saray said in an interview recounting their conversation.
The land issue in Cambodia dates from the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, which forced large-scale evacuations and relocations throughout the country.
This was followed by mass confusion over land rights and the formation of squatter communities when the refugees returned in the 1990s after a decade of civil war.
Housing Cambodia’s large, young, and overwhelmingly poor population has posed a major problem ever since.
Thun Saray also advised Subedi that Cambodia’s notoriously ineffective judicial system is in dire need of restructuring.
“The justice system should be reformed. We all see the shortcomings and flaws in the system. The reform should start by looking into the flaws point by point. For example, the flaws happen in the process of trials and court proceedings which result in unjust rulings,” he said.
“The public is unsatisfied with the current process of court trials. We have to look, investigate these shortcomings, and fix them.”
More than one-quarter of Cambodian court defendants reported being tortured or coerced into confession, and ordinary people said they lack faith in the justice system, according to a 2009 judicial review released by Cambodian anti-corruption organization The Center for Social Development.
Poor training of the judiciary, bribery, torture, underfunding, a lack of independence, and frequent pre-trial detention of prisoners for terms exceeding the legal limit of six months are among problems with the judiciary often cited by rights organizations.
At the end of his last visit in June, Subedi said the judiciary faced “tremendous challenges in delivering justice for the people of the country, especially the poor and marginalized,” adding that some judges were simply not interested in upholding the law.
Thun Saray also discussed a controversial draft law put forth by Cambodia’s National Assembly which would severely curtail the ability of foreign and domestic NGOs operating in the country to carry out their work.
Last month a U.S. State Department spokesman said the United States had “serious concerns about the law as drafted and strongly opposes the enactment of any law that would constrain the legitimate activities of NGOs.”
The State Department urged Phnom Penh to consult with NGOs on the substance of the draft law and to “reconsider whether such a measure is even necessary.”
Cambodia’s government has long had an antagonistic relationship with human rights groups and NGOs operating in the country.
Last year, Hun Sen said he wanted the U.N. human rights office in Cambodia closed and its representative, Christophe Peschoux, sacked.
Subedi is expected to hold a press conference in Phnom Penh on Feb. 24 during which he will review some of the key issues raised during his visit before compiling a report for the United Nations.
He last presented his findings to the U.N. in September 2010.
Reported by Pon Bun Song and Khe Sonorng for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Vuthy Huot. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.