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Prominent Thai Scholar Appointed U.N. Human Rights Envoy to Cambodia

Member of the independent Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic Vitit Muntarbhorn addresses the media during a news conference at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, June 23, 2015. (REUTERS/Pierre Albouy)

A Thai legal scholar, who has worked on the human rights situations in North Korea and Syria, was officially appointed on Wednesday as the new U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Situation in Cambodia.

The U.N. Human Rights Council on Wednesday endorsed the candidacy and appointed Vitit Muntarbhorn as the next human rights rapporteur to Cambodia, taking over from Rhona Smith who has finished two terms in the U.N. position.

“I wish to call on all states and stakeholders to cooperate with the newly-appointed mandate holders in the implementation of their mandates,” said Council President Nazhat Shameem Khan.

An Sokkhoeun, Cambodia’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, who spoke at the session, said the appointment of a special rapporteur showed the country’s “resolute commitment” to human rights.

“While lending our renewed cooperation to the new Special Rapporteur … Cambodian government fervently hopes that the mandate holder undertakes the functions in strict adherence to the ‘Code of Conduct’ and the ‘Operational Manual of the Special Procedures’,” An Sokkhoeun said.

He said the rapporteur should establish facts based on “objective, reliable information emanating from relevant credible sources.” The government has routinely criticized human rights organizations, both domestic and international, for being anti-government and pro-opposition in their assessment of the country’s human rights situation.

Educated in the United Kingdom, Vitit Muntarbhorn is currently teaching at the Chulalongkorn University as professor emeritus. He previously spent years working with the U.N. on a range of rights issues, including LGBTQ, labor, children’s, and sexual rights.

From 2004 to 2010, he was the first U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in North Korea but never entered the country since Pyongyang does not recognize the mandate of the U.N. envoy to observe them.

In 2014, Muntarbhorn penned an article suggesting the possibility of invoking the International Criminal Court in response to the “systematic, widespread and gross human rights abuses” in North Korea.

“Given that the judicial system in North Korea is not independent, it is worth exploring a resort to the international justice system, particularly referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the prosecution of individual perpetrators,” he wrote at the time.

Last week, Vitit Muntarbhorn criticized some ASEAN member states over their inactions to condemn the violence unleashed by the Myanmar military on protesters against its coup in early February.

“[S]everal members of the group are still fence-sitting and regrettably turning a blind eye to the situation,” he wrote.

Vitit Muntarbhorn on Thursday said he would not make any comment on his new role until his mandate starts on May 1.

It remains unclear when Muntarbhorn would make his first official visit to Cambodia, where Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government has been criticized over the deteriorating rights records since the 2017 dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party and persecution of dissidents and critics.

Outgoing rapporteur, Rhona Smith, welcomed Muntarbhorn’s appointment in a statement released Thursday.

“I have had the honor of meeting him on several occasions over the years and we will be discussing a handover of the mandate during the weeks ahead,” she said.