WORLD/CAMBODIA: An appreciation of the protest by Prof. Yash Ghai at the UN HRC session

The protest made by Prof. Yash Ghai in his written statement to the 9th Session of the UN Human Rights Council is an eye-opener. He speaks of the failure of the Cambodian government to cooperate with his mandate, and instead rudely insult him. His comments demonstrate the very serious decline in the cooperation of a number of states with authoritarian regimes that are actively undermining the work of the United Nations. The particular resistance of these states regards issues insisting on the development of the rule of law, independence of the judiciary and the protection of human rights. Prof. Yash Ghai also complained about the inadequate backing he received from the relevant UN agencies and the international community regarding his work.

The mandate for a Special Representative for Human Rights in Cambodia was created in 1993 and in the subsequent 15 years several special representatives have held this post. They have all kept in contact with the government, civil society organisations, international human rights organisations and the Cambodian Office for Human Rights, established after the UN sponsored elections in 1993. Commenting on the recommendations of his predecessors Prof Yash Ghai stated that he had reviewed the recommendations made previously and that he had to repeat them. These repetitions included the recommendations of the very first representative appointed in 1993. In simple terms this implies that none of the recommendations have ever been implemented. Perhaps Prof. Yash Ghai would have realised the wisdom of Einstein who is quoted as saying that madness means repeatedly doing the same thing, expecting a different result. Perhaps the 15 years of experience of recommendation making by the UN to the Cambodian government has proved that the only reaction of the Cambodian government to such recommendations is to ignore them.

Prof. Yash Ghai also mentioned that he was repeatedly insulted by Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith. He said that the prime minister referred to him as a deranged person, a tourist and a lazy person, while Khieu Kanharith referred to him and human rights organisations as animals. The spokesman also attacked Prof. Yash Ghai on a racial basis referring to his nationality and saying that Kenyans are savages and do not know the ways of the Aryans. Such personal attacks and slurs on the basis of race are increasingly being used as a method adopted by authoritarian regimes in attacking UN officers dealing with human rights issues. Some countries attack such officers on the basis that they are white westerners who suffer from the Anglo Saxon complex of wanting to dominate the world. The essence of such attacks is a loud cry which states clearly that “we do not want any exposure and criticisms of our human rights record. It is our business”. This means that the absence of the rule of law, exploitation of the weak by the powerful because the weak do not laws to protect them, the stealing of their land and its distribution to the rich patrons of powerful politicians and the use of the police to harass and to intimidate the people are all local matters and should not be commented upon by the United Nations.

The debate on Cambodia showed some countries calling upon the United Nations to confine their support to whatever the governments themselves want. For example, if the UN agency, observing that there is weak rule of law in the country, requests the government to act on this matter, the government may say that they do not need the assistance of the UN on this matter but rather on some issues like medical infrastructure or training the police and the like. The attempt now is to demand that the UN accepts the country’s denial of rights by repression as a matter that should be left to the government and the international discourse on these matters should be of no concern to the United Nations. Often this approach is aimed at requesting the United Nations for technical assistance while denying the UN a role in monitoring the actual human rights situation faced by the people.

Thus, there is a strong attempt to change the very discourse on human rights. Ever since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights there has been a global discourse to improve human rights standards for the benefit of all people in all countries. The adoption of the Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was a further step taken to improve the global concern for human rights. This was followed by a large number of other covenants relating to various specific aspects of human rights such as the elimination of torture, extrajudicial killings, discrimination against women, and equality before law, children’s rights and a vast number of other concerns. Now, a considerable number of countries with authoritarian regimes have formed themselves into a strong lobby to resist the influence of the human rights discourse.

Prof. Yash Ghai also mentioned that he did not received adequate backing when he was being undermined and insulted by the Cambodian regime. He said that when the Cambodian prime minister mentioned that he was carrying out his mandate only to make money the relevant UN agencies did not make a public statement to say that the mandate was carried out voluntarily and that no payment of money was involved in this work. Having lacked such backing he had to make such a statement by himself to counteract such false allegations.

This aspect of understanding and support for the work of UN officers dealing with difficult situations has been a matter of serious concern in recent times. There seems to be an alienation growing in concerned governments and the relevant UN agencies and the various mandate holders who are tasked with handling the grave situations of human rights. Perhaps the international anti-terrorism drive has undermined the international will to protect and promote human rights.

Prof. Yash Ghai’s protests need to be appreciated and lessons need to be learned. It is very rare in international diplomacy for there to be such a courageous and frank protest as has happened in this instance. These need to be seen as eye-openers to the severe problems affecting the movements for human rights and democracy globally.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-242-2008
Countries : Cambodia,