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(Washington, DC) - Five leading international human rights organizations today called upon the Cambodian government to respect its international human rights commitments as well as United Nations officials mandated to monitor them.

The five organizations – Human Rights Watch, the Asian Human Rights Commission, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and the World Organisation against Torture (OMCT) – expressed deep concern about the Cambodian government’s ongoing unwillingness to engage with the UN secretary-general’s special representative on human rights in Cambodia, Professor Yash Ghai.

Following critical remarks by the special representative at the end of a 10-day fact-finding mission to Cambodia, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on December 12 called Ghai – a distinguished professor of constitutional law in Kenya who has been special representative since 2005 – a “human rights tourist” and vowed to never meet him.

In his closing press conference on December 10, Ghai raised concerns that the government is acting under the cover of “development” to justify widespread land grabbing and illegal forced evictions of Cambodia’s urban and rural poor. He noted that communities forced off their land have little judicial recourse or legal protection because the judiciary is corrupt and the Land Law is not properly implemented. Ghai noted that victims are increasingly ending up in prison for trying to defend their land and their human rights (see [English] or [Khmer]).

“Professor Ghai has drawn attention to critical concerns shared by the wider international human rights community,” said Basil Fernando, executive director of the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission. “There’s no denying the facts. Expropriation of the land of Cambodia’s poor is reaching a disastrous level, the courts are politicized and corrupt, and impunity for human rights violators remains the norm.”

Government officials charged that the UN envoy was trying to incite Cambodians to oppose the government and rejected as “inaccurate” and overly negative Ghai’s assessment of Cambodia’s rights situation.

“Yash Ghai is not an isolated maverick. All of his findings have been repeatedly raised in the past by local and international rights groups, UN agencies, and bilateral and multilateral donors,” said Sara Colm, senior researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch. “Donors who commit millions of dollars to Cambodia each year for poverty alleviation, judicial reform and economic development should not condone government policies that result in thousands of Cambodians losing their homes, their livelihoods, and in some cases their lives.”

A Foreign Ministry spokesman told the press on December 11 that government officials were unable to meet Ghai during his visit because they were “busy trying to develop the country.”

In Ratanakiri province, armed soldiers and police attempted to disrupt a meeting between Ghai and indigenous villagers facing confiscation of their land, claiming Ghai had no right to meet villagers because he had not received written permission from local authorities. Ghai’s terms of reference authorize him to travel freely within Cambodia and to visit prisons without prior approval.

“When gun-toting soldiers threaten a UN official, one can only imagine how much more difficult it is for impoverished farmers in the countryside to assert their rights,” said Eric Sottas, director of the Geneva-based World Organization against Torture.

“Defenders of economic and social rights in Cambodia are also facing high risks, particularly when they defend the victims of forced evictions,” said Souhayr Belhassen, president of the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights.

In a public speech on December 12, Hun Sen said that Ghai’s missions to Cambodia only “caused trouble” and criticized him for not focusing on problems in Kenya, which he said was “one hundred times worse” than Cambodia. Hun Sen extended his criticism of the UN’s human rights mechanisms by admonishing the United Nations to stop issuing negative reports about Burma and said that Cambodia would defend Burma at the UN Human Rights Council, making him the first world leader to express support for the Burmese government’s recent crackdown.

“Hun Sen’s attacks on Professor Ghai were outrageous, especially since the prime minister did not question the veracity of Ghai’s findings,” said Anselmo Lee, executive director of Bangkok-based FORUM-ASIA. “Hun Sen’s statements show contempt not only for the United Nations, but also the Burmese democracy movement.”

The 1991 Paris Agreements provided for the UN secretary-general to appoint a special envoy to monitor the human rights situation in Cambodia. As a party to the Paris Peace Agreements and numerous international human rights treaties, Cambodia has committed itself to respect and protect the rights of its population (see [English] or [Khmer]).

“Hun Sen’s tirade against the UN is the latest in a long series of attacks and lack of cooperation with Ghai and the three UN Special Representatives who preceded him,” said Fernando. “Rather than publicly rebuking the UN, the Cambodian government should meet with Yash Ghai and start seriously working on the recommendations included in his report.”

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