Yesterday, during the 27th session of the Human Rights Council, Professor Surya P. Subedi presented his last report as the United Nations (the “UN”) Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia.
The work of the Special Rapporteur involves independently investigating the human rights situation by visiting Cambodia biannually, and reporting to the UN Human Rights Council. At the conclusion of the twelfth reporting period, from 1 July 2013 – 24 July 2014, and after fulfilling the maximum six-year term, the Special Rapporteur has a deep understanding of the challenges facing Cambodia. The candid and honest nature of the report is unsurprising following his press conference at the conclusion of his last visit to Cambodia in June.
The report expresses that overall the human rights situation is generally heading in a positive direction. The Special Rapporteur praises the Royal Government of Cambodia (the “RGC”) for adopting some of his recommendations, and for willingly meeting with him. He further powerfully asserts that:
‘The year 2013 was the year in which the Cambodian people found their voice, and the Special Rapporteur is convinced that Cambodia has embarked on a new path from which there is no turning back.’
Despite this, the report raises significant concerns and recommendations. The prime recommendation is to establish an independent national human rights institution in compliance with the principles relating to the status of national institutions for the promotion and protection of human rights (the Paris Principles). The envisaged institution would monitor human rights, advise the government, and investigate individual complaints. This would address the critical issues that are raised in almost every other element of the report: the lack of accountability, the lack of transparency and the lack of effective dispute resolution mechanisms that currently plague Cambodia. As the Special Rapporteur highlights,
‘The continued nexus between powerful business elites, political figures and the military, combined with the absence of an independent judicial system and ineffective dispute resolution mechanisms, continues to deny many ordinary Cambodians redress for violations of their fundamental rights or judicious settlement of disputes.’
He expresses considerable concern regarding the independence of the judiciary. Of particular concern is the enactment of laws on the organization of courts, on the status of judges and prosecutors, and on the Supreme Council of the Magistracy that were promulgated into law in July 2014. The provisions are ‘detrimental to the independence of the judiciary and the doctrine of the separation of powers’. The report also highlights the need for Parliament to be more transparent and open to consultations.
The Special Rapporteur praises the largely peaceful manner in which the elections to the National Assembly in July 2013 were conducted, and the free exchange of information that accompanied them, calling it ‘a sign of maturing democracy in Cambodia’. However, he condemns the use of excessive force against protestors, and the arbitrary ban on demonstrations lasting from January-August 2014. He recommends the need for electoral reform, in order to ensure that democracy functions smoothly and to increase public confidence in the system.
Finally, despite the implementation of positive land policies, the Special Rapporteur is concerned about the continuation of land disputes, and calls on the RGC to immediately resolve the existing disputes.
Other issues include minimum wages, racism, the return of migrant workers from Thailand, the relocation of refugees from Australia to Cambodia, cybercrime laws, and the failure of the RGC to fully embrace the recommendations of the 2014 Universal Periodic Review of Cambodia.
So where does such a powerful report leave us? If fully implemented, the recommendations would overturn the fundamental power structures that underpin Cambodian society. Reform of the judiciary, the parliament, and electoral procedures, and end the culture of impunity, would be a leap towards restoring balance to Cambodian society. While those at the top have a vested personal interest in maintaining the status quo, and it is clear that the path to reform will not be easy, the journey has unquestionably commenced. It will be interesting to see which elements and recommendations of the report the RGC does embrace.
The Special Rapporteur has played a fundamental role in speaking the truth to both Cambodia and the world regarding the human rights situation, and it will be exciting the see the incoming Special Rapporteur undertake this challenge.
Sami Shearman, CCHR International Intern, contributed to this blog post.