Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (left) inspects troops with his son Lieutenant-General Hun Manet. Photo: Handout/AFP

A statement by UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights to Cambodia Rhona Smith confirmed that she was denied permission to meet with Kem Sokha, the detained leader of the outlawed Cambodian National Rescue Party, during her visit to the country between April 29 and May 9. This raises serious questions about her role and authority.

Smith traveled to Cambodia only to be told that Hun Sen, Cambodia’s strongman ruler, who is responsible for the destruction of the legacy of the UN peacekeeping force that brought stability to the country in the aftermath of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, had barred her from meeting him.

If Hun Sen can deny Smith’s request, her presence in the country does nothing more than lend further authority to the Hun Sen regime. When Smith visited Cambodia, the regime was continuing to terrorize Cambodians, with more innocent people being summoned to appear in court, as reported in The Washington Post.

Hate speech

Hun Sen has used hate speech against the latest European delegation visiting Cambodia and hurled insults at world leaders, and his latest action is humiliating for the United Nations.

Like with the European delegation that visited Cambodia in March, Hun Sen wanted to send a clear message – Smith’s status is too low for him to grant her the “right” to meet with a leader whose party was the focus of a European Union resolution.

Instead of condemning Hun Sen’s action, Smith welcomed it by calling for the regime to issue a further “periodic review” of its human rights report.

Smith has been repeatedly denied access to the opposition leader since she called for his release in November

Smith has been repeatedly denied access to the opposition leader since she called for his release in November. Smith is aware that Hun Sen needs to detain Cambodians – including the outlawed leader – for “national peace and security” reasons.

Nonetheless, despite Smith’s request being denied, Hun Sen was happy to allow the UN special rapporteur to “meet with other ministers.” Smith’s cautious statement in response underscores her lack of authority to exercise meaningful influence on Cambodia’s regime.

Given the restrictions imposed on the special rapporteur, it makes no sense for her to refrain from naming and shaming this regime. It is clear that Hun Sen’s wicked strategy to have his other ministers build “goodwill” with Smith worked and to a certain extent his ministers are willing to be used and promoted as part of the patronage system.

The nature of this “goodwill” approach is no different from other Western countries engaging with Cambodia. Last year the Australian ambassador was featured on ABC network’s Four Corners TV program. The episode, Champagne with Dictators, focused on Australia’s failure to stand up for democracy as Cambodia descends into dictatorship.

The mastermind behind the denial of Smith’s right to exercise her power as an independent UN special rapporteur was a man who is obsessed with violence.

UN report benefits regime

Smith’s predecessor, Michael Kirby, wrote; “By reference to the tragic history of Cambodia; the creation of the UN special procedures… Eventually, in international human rights procedures, a position will be reached where the United Nations should not lend its authority to wilful oppressors and tyrants.”

That is precisely what is happening now.

Instead of condemning the regime, Smith wrote, “I am conscious of the frequently aggressive rhetoric from both sides and believe there is a need to change the political culture to one that focuses on issues rather than persons.”

Questions must now be raised about the objectivity of Smith’s assessment; are there “both sides” when Cambodia is owned and ruled by Hun Sen? Is this a worthwhile observation in light of Hun Sen’s relentless crimes against landowners and human rights defenders? Why not call out Hun Sen instead of using the word “persons”? Have any of those “persons,” besides Hun Sen, ever dissolved a political party or denied Smith access to a detainee?

How are Hun Sen’s threats “rhetoric” that never materialized? If Hun Sen’s threats are not acted on today, they will be soon enough by Cambodia’s dictator-in-waiting.

By detaining every Cambodian who aspires to exercise their human rights, Hun Sen and his regime engage in systematic calumny to divide and terrorize citizens at an alarming rate.

Patriots are being attacked by a dictator who promotes violence, and Smith’s failure to condemn him benefits the regime as supposed to the people of Cambodia.

A recent media release by Charles Santiago of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights carries more weight than that of the UN special rapporteur. He said, “Cambodia has already become a de facto one-party state since last year’s election. The continued attacks on the opposition shows that the government has no interest in meaningful dialogue, but is only concerned with strengthening its own grip on power.”

Overcoming political impasse

The United Nations and the international community can help overcome the current political impasse by ceasing to lend authority to wilful oppressors and tyrants. Adopting consistent actions and language, as opposed to appeasing the regime with “ministerial meetings” – which are used by Cambodia’s oppressor to build international “goodwill” – is one strategy.

This involves actions consistent with the language of the joint statement of 45 nations in March 2018. Raising the issue of legitimacy is likely to produce a positive outcome for Cambodia. In conjunction with sanctions – currently being undertaken by the United States and the European Union – this would help to undermine the legitimacy of crimes committed by Cambodia’s oppressors, as supposed to lending authority to this dictatorial regime.

The European Union is right to revoke its preferential tax scheme. Defending human rights and promoting good governance must be encouraged, as opposed to sustaining the status quo with dictators.

Last month, following the publication of an article in Asia Times, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker confirmed in a letter to the author: “On several occasions, the European Union has urged the Cambodian government to take the necessary measures to restore a functioning democracy and to ensure a political environment in which opposition parties and civil society can function freely.”

Juncker continued, “On 11 February 2019, the EU launched a procedure to temporarily withdraw tariff preferences granted to Cambodia under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme. The EU will continue to closely monitor the situation in Cambodia.”

The time for attempting to reform Hun Sen’s regime is over. Building goodwill through “ministerial meetings” is Hun Sen’s strategy. He uses every apparatus as a façade to gain international legitimacy so that his crimes against Cambodians appear justified and legitimate and he can avoid sanctions. Smith should not tolerate this any longer.

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