In Final Report, UN Envoy Sees Progress on Human Rights

Despite a series of violent clashes in which government forces shot dead seven people over the course of the last year, the human rights situation in the country is heading in a positive direction, U.N. human rights envoy Surya Subedi said in his final report on Cambodia.

The report to the U.N. Human Rights Council is his sixth since taking up the position in 2009, and is also his last.

“The mandate of the special rapporteur continues until the end of 2015, but he personally will reach the end of his time limit of six years in March, so the next visit will be his last,” said Wan Hea-Lee, the representative of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia.

In the report, Mr. Subedi says that the past year’s violence, ban on the freedom to assemble and political imprisonments went against a general trend of improving human rights and said that the current focus on electoral reforms could set the country on a path to become a functioning democracy.

“[T]he violence and use of excessive force witnessed on repeated occasions since the elections, as well as the indefinite continuation of an ambiguous and arbitrary ban on demonstrations that lasted over six months at the time of writing, and the arrest of CNRP members on very serious charges widely believed to be politically motivated, ran counter to this trend,” Mr. Subedi said.

Seven opposition lawmakers and four party activists have been imprisoned and released on bail since a street brawl near Freedom Park on July 15 that prosecutors used as a basis for charges of insurrection and incitement to commit a felony, which still stand.

But despite these setbacks, Mr. Subedi writes, based on visits in January and June, that “the human rights situation in Cambodia, viewed from a long-term perspective, is heading in a generally positive direction.

“That is due mostly to the emergence of an emboldened population who came forward en masse to express its views in 2013. It did so in an impressive, disciplined way, despite the acts of stone-throwing and the destruction of property by some protesters, and fortified barriers and the presence of armed security forces,” Mr. Subedi said.

In the previous report, Mr. Subedi forewarned of violence if the government failed to reform an electoral system dominated by the ruling CPP, thus eroding public trust in the election results. He wrote in his latest report that the ruling CPP has the ultimate responsibility to ensure that ongoing reform efforts lead to a fair election next time around.

“By virtue of the fact that it is the ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party and the Government itself have the responsibility to demonstrate maximum flexibility, leadership and seriousness and embrace the demands for reform to ensure a smoother functioning of democracy in the country,” he wrote.

“At the same time, the opposition party too must be reasonable and realistic and promote tolerance and harmonious race relations,” Mr. Subedi added in a seeming reference to the CNRP’s commonly used anti-Vietnamese rhetoric.

Mr. Subedi also raised concerns about a deal that would see Australia resettle refugees currently being held on the South Pacific island of Nauru to Cambodia. He said the deal, if it is passed, would “be a serious abdication of the responsibilities of Australia,” because Cambodia is “not on equal footing with Australia in terms of rights, opportunities and international standards of integration.”

Mr. Subedi also notes that Cambodia flouted its international obligations regarding refugees in the past, notably with the forcible return of Uighur asylum seekers to China.

“States that do not have essential services in place are not ready to offer refugees a permanent solution through relocation,” he said.

Another area of reform Mr. Subedi has pushed for during his time as rapporteur was the drafting and enactment of three constitutionally mandated judicial laws. These laws were finally passed in July, but not without resounding criticisms from rights and legal advocacy groups, who said the laws entrenched the power of the executive branch over the judiciary.

“Having examined the texts, the Special Rapporteur is concerned that the laws adopted by Parliament contain certain provisions that are detrimental to the principle of the separation of powers,” Mr. Subedi wrote.

The “lack of material evidence” for the arrests last month of seven opposition lawmakers, coupled with their swift release as a political deal was struck between Prime Minister Hun Sen and CNRP President Sam Rainsy “clearly reveal the extent to which the judiciary continues to be influenced by the executive,” he said.

Mr. Subedi is to present the report to the rights council in Geneva next month.

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