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UN Rights Envoy: Cambodians Need One to Speak on Their Behalf

Following a visit to Cambodia in December, the UN special rights envoy to Cambodia, Yash Ghai, said many citizens still live in fear and insecurity and could rise up against the government. Prime Minister Hun Sen refused to send a government representative to meet him during the visit, and Ghai's impending report was denounced in advance by Hun Sen in a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. VOA Khmer interviewed Ghai in a question-answer session broadcast Dec. 29. Below is a transcript of the interview.

Q. Have you seen or received Cambodia's letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon concerning you?

A. Yes, I have seen that letter, yes.

Q. What did you think?

A. Well, I think [government officials] are entitled to do what they have done. I have my responsibilities as the special representative of the secretary-general for human rights. And I have made a very honest assessment of the problems the people have in exercising their rights. And I always try to be very open and transparent, and this upsets the government sometimes. I will write my report to the Human Rights Council of the UN based on my report and research. The government will have an opportunity to deal with very detailed comment on the situation of human rights.

Q. Why didn't government officials meet with you when you were in Cambodia?

A. Well, you have to ask them. We have always made a request to meet them, and they have refused to see me. For some reason the government doesn't want to see me.

Q. Did they give you a reason?

A. No, they did not give me a reason. Perhaps you can call them and ask them why they don't see me.

Q. Your assessment was based on your meeting with non-governmental people. Who did you meet?

A. I met a large number of groups; they included political parties, the legal professionals, the NGOs, human rights organizations, the media. And I also of course have many reports sent to me by various groups. I spent a day with the Extraordinary Chambers [in the Courts of Cambodia], which is the Khmer Rouge tribunal. I met with the judges and the prosecutors there, so I had a very full program.

Q. What are your thoughts on the process of the tribunal?

A. Well, I think the international judges and staff are doing their very best in such difficult circumstances. I will have a section on the tribunal in my report, which I will present to the UN in March. You can read the details then.

Q. What about the Cambodian side?

A. There have been various allegations about the Cambodian side of the tribunal. There have been some allegations about the integrity of the judges. There have been many allegations of the breach of the normal appointment procedures, such as very high salary. There have been large number of allegations, and I have tried to look at the allegations and talked to various groups to see what the truth is.

Q. So what are your recommendations about the human rights situation in Cambodia?

A. Well, I am still formulating my recommendation. But really the government will do well to read the recommendations of my predecessor, because my recommendations aren't going to be very different from theirs, which suggested that for the last 10 years or so, very limited progress has been made about human rights, and in some cases the situation has gotten worse.

Q. Do you agree with the letter of Cambodia's UN ambassador, Sea Kosal, in which he said technically Cambodia doesn't need a UN special representative on human rights in Cambodia?

A. Well, there are so many violations of human rights. There are so many people who are in detention for years before they are brought to trial, so many people who have lost their land to senior politicians and to companies connected to the government that it is hard to say that the situation there is perfect.

Q. Land grabbing is a huge problem in Cambodia, isn't it?

A. Yes, it is a very big problem. I actually went to Ratanakkiri to visit a village where villagers claimed that 500 hectares of land were taken by fraudulent means. I also tried to meet with companies which have been accused of having done this. I've spent a long time with the villagers, and in fact the police came to disrupt the meeting when I was in the village. So I could see from that incident how harsh and brutal the police and the military can be, and now I begin to understand how Cambodians feel about the security forces. If they could treat the UN special representative the way they treated me, I wonder how they behave when the UN presence is not there when they come to visit people.

Q. You have been accused of being too negative about the human rights situation in Cambodia.

A. Well, I gave an illustration of every statement I made, and it's for the readers to judge whether I am too optimistic or too pessimistic or too alarmist. I always try to give plenty of evidence on every statement that I make.

Q. You had a chance to participate in a walk with the Cambodian people on Dec. 1, International Human Rights Day. Can you describe the experience?

A. Well, the walk was a short walk because the government did not want a long walk. They also restricted the number of people who wanted to join the walk to 500 only, and so many, many other people wanted to join but weren't able to. But at the meeting itself there were many more people. I thought we had a very good meeting. There were a number of speeches; there was music and dancing. People were celebrating human rights day, and it should be despite many restrictions imposed by the government. There was no one from the government at this celebration of human rights. Human Rights Day is a public holiday in Cambodia. And I am afraid to say there was only one ambassador, and that was the US ambassador. There was no one from the various UN agencies except from the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, so I was struck by how little interest the international community takes on human rights.

Q. If you and US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli were not there, do you think the government would have allowed people to march on that day?

A. Well, I know it was very hard to get permission, and in the end the government kept on saying, "No." Then the Office of the High Commissioner made a special plea to the [Minister of the Interior Sar Keng]. It was only the evening before the walk that permission was given to a limited assembly.

Q. What's your mandate in Cambodia?

A. My mandate is to report on the human rights situation and to assist in any way I can to improve the human rights situation there. The Special Representative is appointed in accordance to the [1993] Paris Agreement. That's why the appointment is made by the secretary-general and not by the Human Rights Council.

Q. So the decision to eliminate the position of the UN Special Representative on Human Rights, is it up to the UN or Cambodia?

A. It's a matter for discussion between the Cambodian government and the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights in Geneva.

Q. Do you strongly believe that Cambodia still needs someone like you?

A. I think it needs independent scrutiny. A lot of people in the country are very frightened to speak out, and I think it's valuable to have an external, independent, and, I hope, objective person who also has the knowledge of human rights, law and practice, to be able to speak out on behalf of those who cannot.