CAMBODIA: Independent & competent courts needed more than a human rights committee

In a September 26 address at a conference on national human rights institutions, the Prime Minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, said that he supported the creation of a national human rights committee for the country. Om Yen Tieng, the prime minister’s aide, said that perhaps it could be set up within a year. The audience, comprising of representatives from over thirty non-governmental groups, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and officials from some ASEAN countries, responded enthusiastically. Many have been advocating the creation of a human rights institution in Cambodia for some years.

The idea that a new committee can safeguard human rights in Cambodia at this juncture is very questionable. To begin with, there are already many human rights bodies in Cambodia. Both houses of parliament have their own human rights committees, which can receive complaints, as can individual members of parliament. The government has one too. In addition, there is an OHCHR office in Cambodia and a number of human rights groups of high standing, whom most victims of abuses are likely to approach first.

However, all government-linked human rights institutions have failed to address people’s grievances. Even having investigated, they are totally ineffective when dealing with complaints against government agencies, public authorities and officials. The role of the government’s committee, and especially its chairman, Om Yen Tieng, is actually to defend the government and its leaders against criticism rather than to safeguard human rights.

Many troubling questions arise over the proposed new committee. For instance, as it is not intended to supersede the existing human rights institutions but work alongside them, how will work be distributed to avoid duplication and public confusion about to whom to turn? How will limited resources be shared? Above all, how will the independence and pluralism in composition of the new committee–as spelled out in the 1993 Paris Principles relating to the Status of National Institutions–be guaranteed when at this time no state institution in Cambodia is free from the control of the prime minister and his party? For instance, the Office of the Auditor-General and the National Election Commission are supposed to be independent institutions, but their leaders are political appointees, and the laws creating them, their rules and regulations, all ensure persistent executive control. This is to say nothing of the courts of law.

The reason for this lack of independence also relates very much to the deep fear that courses through Cambodian society today. The livelihood and social status of a very large number of Cambodians–including all persons in state agencies–is entirely dependent on the political whims of the government and its leaders. This dependence greatly inhibits the exercise of individual freedom. Under these circumstances, the notion of “independent” government agencies is absurd.

The danger inherent in this proposal is that once a so-called human rights committee is established the government will use it as a pretext to end the activities of the OHCHR and the special envoy to Cambodia of the UN Secretary General. These UN human rights monitoring bodies, which are independent of the government, will then be lost, leaving nothing in their stead.

In the opinion of the Asian Human Rights Commission, a far more important priority than the establishing of a human rights committee in Cambodia is the building of an independent, competent and impartial judiciary. This means enacting long-promised key laws: the penal code, code of criminal procedure, civil code, code of civil procedure, judges act, law on the organisation of courts, and anti-corruption law. It means affording them the resources needed to do their work. It means setting in place specific arrangements so that the courts are above and beyond the country’s leadership.

Another priority for the government of Cambodia should be to join the protocols to key human rights treaties, specifically the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Ratifying these documents will allow Cambodian citizens to approach United Nations treaty bodies directly when their rights have been violated and they have exhausted all avenues through domestic courts and agencies.

Under the 1991 Paris Peace Accords that brought an end to war in Cambodia, the government has a duty to uphold human rights. The Asian Human Rights Commission urges it to recognise and fulfil this duty by enacting the laws needed to protect rights through the exercise of independent, competent and impartial judicial authority in Cambodia, and by opening the means for complaints to UN treaty bodies by individuals who have run out of alternatives at home. It also urges donor governments, UN agencies, international aid agencies and the international human rights community to work with the Cambodian government and its leaders to get them to devote their efforts and resources to these endeavours as their top priority. Any talk of a human rights committee should be left until after that.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-240-2006
Countries : Cambodia,
Issues : Judicial system, Victims assistance & protection,