Threat to Expel U.N. Human Rights Office Riles Cambodia

Kicking the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights out of Cambodia is raising worries among the country's citizens that they will have no place to turn if the rights watchdog no longer has a place in the country.

"Cambodia will be a more authoritarian country without the U.N. office," a rickshaw driver named Chhun Oeun told RFA's Khmer Service. "Even now, with the U.N. office here, several human rights activists have been arrested, beaten, and jailed. I cannot imagine how much worse the situation will be if there is no such office."

Am Sam Ath, a technical coordinator for human rights group Licadho, told RFA that closing the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) in Cambodia would be a loss for the entire nation as it will lose foreign aid and international respect.

"Cambodia will be deprived of its foreign aid due to its action," he said. "There might be fewer reports on human right abuses if the U.N. office is no longer present, but that doesn't do any good to the government's overall image."

Song Sreyleap, a Boeung Kak land activist, told RFA the Cambodian government is trying to avoid its responsibilities to its people.

"If the government does not want the U.N.'s intervention into Cambodia's internal affairs, why has it failed to take good care of its own people? Why has it not done anything to improve the human rights situation? Why has it not stopped the suppression of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly? Why has it not stopped evicting people from their homes?" she said.

Some 3,500 families were evicted from the land surrounding Boeung Kak lake in Phnom Penh, which was filled with sand to make way for a development project with close ties to Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP).

Sar Sorn, a representative of Borei Keila community, told RFA the attempt by Hun Sen's government to kick out the U.N. was a transparent attempt to hide his activities.

"The government is afraid to face the truth about its abuses of human rights, and that's why it wants to close down the U.N. office," she said. "If the government is truly accountable for its actions as it claims it is, then it shouldn't be afraid to let the U.N. office continue its mandate. Its threat to close the office reflects the regime of a dictator."

About 300 families in Borei Keila were forcibly evicted from their homes in 2012 to make way for development by the politically-connected construction company Phanimex.

Trader Sim Thida told RFA that she fears a return to the dark days of the Khmer Rouge.

"Cambodia will be reduced to a regime like the Khmer Rouge where people were totally controlled and deprived of their rights and freedom," she said. "Cambodia will lose a check and balance if there is no U.N. office."

'Arrogant and disrespectful behavior'

Cambodia's Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon accused the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), of "arrogant and disrespectful behavior toward the sovereignty of Cambodia," and threatened to end the country's cooperation with the office unless it agrees to quit "meddling" in the nation's internal affairs.

"Despite the [Royal Government of Cambodia's] efforts to enhance the smooth, constructive, and effective cooperation based on mutual respect, the OHCHR has furthermore been stepping up its interference in internal affairs of Cambodia," he wrote in a Nov. 22 letter to OHCHR leader Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein.

While the memorandum of understanding that allows the OHCHR to operate in Cambodia lapsed last year, the office has continued to function without it.

According to Prak Sokhon's letter, that could end at the end of 2016 if the OHCHR refuses to agree to operate "on the basis of the principle of respect for sovereignty and non-interference in Cambodia's internal affairs."

Raivna Shamdasani, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said yesterday that discussions with the government on the new agreement were continuing, the Khmer Times reported.

"The presence of OHCHR in any country depends on the agreement of the host country, and we are looking forward to continuing to discuss with the government the continuing presence of OHCHR in the country," she said, according to local media reports.

Sovereignty and Sam Rainsy

Cambodia's government has bristled over comments made earlier this month by the OHCHR's country representative Wan-Hea Lee, who told local media that an Interior Ministry directive barring Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Sam Rainsy from entering the country was a likely rights violation.

"No elements of the decision to block the entry of Mr. Sam Rainsy into Cambodia have been brought to light that would allow anyone to assess its reasonableness, which renders the decision unjustified and arbitrary," Lee wrote in an email to The Cambodia Daily.

In October, the Cambodian government ordered police, immigration, and aviation authorities to "use all ways and means" to prevent opposition leader Sam Rainsy from returning from exile, as he has pledged to do before elections in 2017 and 2018.

The opposition leader has been abroad for a year to avoid a two-year prison sentence handed down in a defamation case. It is not the only conviction handed down by the courts.

In the latest case, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court found the opposition leader guilty of defamation on Nov. 8 for claiming that Prime Minister Hun Sen's social medial team bought "likes" on Facebook from "click farms" abroad to increase his support.

At the time of his latest conviction, the opposition leader said he could never win in the Cambodian courts because they are "puppets of the government."

ADHOC and NEC officialskept in jail

Meanwhile, the Cambodian appellate court on Monday refused to release four workers for the human rights organization ADHOC and a National Election Commission member who are facing charges in connection with the government's wide-ranging probe into deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha's alleged affair with a young hairdresser.

The Appeals Court upheld the Phnom Penh Municipal Court's decision to keep ADHOC's Ny Sokha, Yi Soksan, Nay Vanda, and Lim Mony, and the NEC's Ny Chakrya in jail for up to six more months as the court collects more evidence in the cases, which are widely seen as politically motivated.

Ny Chakrya and the ADHOC workers face charges of bribery or attempted bribery for allegedly attempting to pay hairdresser Khom Chandaraty money to keep quiet about her alleged relationship with Kem Sokha.

"The appeals court judge indicated that the court has upheld the investigative judge's decision on the provisional detention as it is a criminal case and the investigation is not yet complete," Kea Sophal, an attorney for the ADHOC workers told RFA, saying the legal team has yet to decide what to do next.

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