On 26 June 2014, the government of Cambodia had its Universal Periodic Review outcome session at the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva. The purpose of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is for United Nations (UN) member states to peer-review the human rights records of other member states and offer recommendations that can be accepted, noted, or rejected by the State under review. Because every state must undergo a review, and because recommendations are offered by fellow members as opposed to UN officials, the process is seen as a fair, objective, and equal way to improve each state’s human rights record.
Cambodia’s UPR was an opportunity for the government to commit to protect fundamental freedoms for its citizens through accepting and later implementing the offered recommendations. While the government did in fact accept most of the recommendations – 163 out of 205 – it also did not disappoint its critics. It rejected four recommendations, while “noting” – acknowledging but without committing to implement – 38 others.
The four recommendations that Cambodia rejected are not outside the purview of the government’s ability to implement, but they deal with issues that are more controversial. One recommendation, for example, calls for equal access to education of all children, including those of Vietnamese ethnicity. Another one, put forward by Portugal, calls for the revocation of defamation provisions in the Penal Code and against publishing false information in the Press Law. In addition to outright rejecting recommendations, the RGC noted several other controversial ones, including a recommendation put forward by the Czech Republic to “[i]nvestigage impartially cases of use of excessive force against protesters and cases of killings.” The fact that the government refuses to make a firm and unequivocal commitment to look into incidents where extrajudicial force that led to deaths was used against peaceful civilians is unacceptable. The RGC’s decision to note or reject these important recommendations perhaps signals that the government is less willing than before to make promises on the world stage that they cannot – or, rather, will not – keep.
Another baffling aspect of their final decision is their acceptance of some recommendations while noting or rejecting other similar ones. For example, they accepted input from Germany – “Protect the rights of human rights defenders” – yet only noted Tunisia’s recommendation of ensuring “a favorable climate for the activities of human rights defenders.” Similarly, they accepted a recommendation to “[c]ontinue its efforts for human rights education and training” but did not accept another asking for the provision of “training for the police on conduct compatible with human rights.” There are other examples in recommendations dealing with the independence of the media, education, impunity, and more.
The seemingly arbitrary manner in which recommendations are either supported or not further indicates that the government is not taking the UPR seriously. This is demonstrated by the fact that the RGC took five months to make a decision on the 34 recommendations that they initially deferred, missed its submission deadline for an updated report to the HRC, and asked that their UPR outcome be delayed by seven days. In a move that was unheard of in any previous UPR process, the four recommendations that Cambodia rejected were ones it had accepted in its initial review, making Cambodia the first country to ever “un-accept” recommendations.
Cambodia is not off to a good start. Fresh out of the review, Cambodia will be watched by NGOs, human rights observers, and other interested parties. And while it can’t hurt to be optimistic, the Cambodian government’s arbitrary selection of accepting recommendations, their flouting of HRC rules, and their unprecedented rejection of key recommendations that had already been accepted is a disappointing and worrisome sign for the future.
Christine Pickering, CCHR international intern, contributed to this blog post.