Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha (L) is escorted by police at his home in Phnom Penh. Sokha on September 10, 2018, a year after he was detained on treason charges, as the country's strongman ruler loosens his grip on opponents after sweeping one-sided elections. / AFP PHOTO / STR

United Nations Special Rapporteur Rhonda Smith is in Cambodia, but officials there are denying her access to Kem Sokha, leader of the banned opposition, who was released on bail a year after his arrest on treason charges in September 2017. This is a good time to look at how the UN’s experts’ actions legitimize Hun Sen’s authoritarian regime.

The UN’s failure to press for this meeting, combined with other inconsistent actions over the last 27 years, merit a claim that the world body contributes to Hun Sen’s violations of human rights – the very problem that the special rapporteur is supposed to address in Cambodia.

Yet instead of pressing Hun Sen to allow the special rapporteur to see Kem Sokha, who was the subject of a series of international resolutions, including one introduced by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, last month, the special rapporteur succumbed to Hun Sen’s bullying.

On the other hand, Cambodia’s regime often cherrypicks the areas for “cooperation and partnership” – to assuage the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). A recent example is the special rapporteur meeting “with other civil society movements and the government,” including a discussion of the “land title registration.”

But this “agency” that deals with the “land issue” is not the crux of Cambodia’s problems. It is the reinstatement of the main opposition party, the leader of which has been accused of being a “traitor,” which is a fundamental issue for Cambodia.

Nonetheless, once again the UN’s so-called “expert” will get to write reports to provide the basis for more discussions and resolutions to be tabled in Geneva and at the UN General Assembly.

For the past 30 years, the UN’s experts have taken this approach to working with Hun Sen: “In Cambodia, we lose some and we win some. Let’s just keep writing reports.”

After Hun Sen’s latest audacious move to obliterate his political opponent, actions and statements from the UNHRC would have been welcomed

But after Hun Sen’s latest audacious move to obliterate his political opponent, actions and statements from the UNHRC would have been welcomed. However, what was once considered to be the “right approach” by the United Nations before November 2017 is no longer applicable.

Given the dissolution of Kem Sokha’s Cambodia National Rescue Party in November 2017, would an expert not consider moving past drafting reports to drafting recommendations for action by the UN?This was the case for the former UN special representative for human rights to Cambodia in 1996, Australia’s Michael Kirby.

On July 1, Kirby called for action: “The actions in Cambodia against the opposition parties are so extreme that they well merit a strong response from the democratic parliament of Australia.”

Kirby has been a strong supporter of the UN’s mandate under Article 17 of the Paris Peace Accords. In 2012, he expressed his position in Cambodia: The long hard journey to peace and human rights.

In fact, Kirby addressed at length some criticisms from Professor Hilary Charlesworth, who, in 2008, asked about the effectiveness of the role of the UN’s special representative to Cambodia:

“…whether the repeated instances of non-co-operation, that was eventually evident on the part of the government of Cambodia, rendered the system of Special Representatives amounted to little more than wishful thinking. Did such procedures afford an oppressive government the appearance of human rights compliance and monitoring whereas the reality was quite different? Would it not be preferable to terminate such costly charades? Would such a move not expose the autocrats and oppressors of the world to the sharper scrutiny of a more honest international community?”

Then in 2008, Kirby answered the above questions in the affirmative. He had every reason to support the role of the UN’s special rapporteur. But now, given the destructive event of November 2017, it is now incumbent on the UN’s expert,  Rhonda Smith, to answer those questions.

The situation in Cambodia can only be described as the darkest hour for Cambodia since the Paris Peace Accords in 1991.

In fact, at the 39th Session on the UN Human Rights Council on September 28, the European Union posed a question to Smith: “What more could this council do to support for respect of human rights in Cambodia? What measures would you recommend states to take to encourage the authority to return to the path of democracy?”

Smith responded: “…  the government must remove the restrictions limiting civil society and NGO activities in Cambodia.” It is this kind of response, coupled with inconsistent actions by the international community, that has led to Cambodia being subjected to authoritarian rule. In fact, all the council said after the injustices inflicted on three million voters in the last national election in July was: “We are concerned.” Seriously?

Do the UN’s special rapporteur and her staff possess the objective assessment skills required to deal with Hun Sen?

The use of this kind of language poses a serious question: Do the UN’s special rapporteur and her staff possess the objective assessment skills required to deal with Hun Sen? After all, as Kirby wrote in 2012, Hun Sen bullied the UN’s experts – including Kirby himself being labeled as a “crazy lawyer.”

The unspeakable injustices experienced by voters should have been met with condemnation from the UN, not a mild statement like “We are concerned.”

The reality is, Hun Sen continues to bully the UN’s experts – while giving an opportunity to the “expert to meet the concerns of civil societies” – part of the “superficial training seminars” described as a “robust civil society movement.”

But this is not the way to address Cambodia’s problems. Dissolving a political party and seizing its property, including campaign materials, banners, posters, logos and other assets, are crimes for which the UN Human Rights Council fails to hold the regime accountable.

Make no mistake, after Hun Sen’s obliteration of Cambodia’s faux democracy in November 2017, no “experts” can claim it is anything other than a country ruled by a rogue regime.

Kirby’s expression“so extreme” truly reflects the reality of the situation. The death of Cambodia’s democracy undeniably fits the criterion of “exceptional times,” which would justify the United Nations taking actions against a human rights oppressor.

In light of this and Kirby’s July statement, there are clear justifications for the UN to move beyond actions and reports.

For Cambodia, as Kirby wrote in 2012: “Save for exceptional times, such as in Cambodia during UNTAC, the UN is not usually in a position to enforce its will against human rights oppressors, even if their activities cause grave disquiet.”

For this reason, moving forward, the UN Human Rights Council – as an authoritative and legitimate human rights defender and protector – must recognize that the time for reporting is well and truly over.

Given that Human Rights Watch joined with other 50 organizations in October 2017 to call on the co-chairs of the Paris Peace Accords, mandated by Article 29, to refer Cambodia before the United Nations, the council’s can and should recommend that the United Nations take action against the regime, including revoking Cambodia’s UN credential.

As the UN’s special rapporteur is in Cambodia, members of the diaspora in Australia, particularly in Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide, supported by members of parliament, have taken actions to reject Cambodian’s authoritarian network on Australia’s soil.

Sawathey Ek

Sawathey Ek OAM is a principal of E K Lawyers (Sydney). He fled Cambodia in 1979 and arrived in Sydney as a refugee in 1983.