A United Nations rights envoy says Cambodia must accelerate the pace of its democracy reforms, but it’s unclear how much sway he holds with a government that has become increasingly resistant to international criticism.

Surya Subedi, the UN’s special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, says he has seen encouraging developments in the south-east Asian nation. But there remain worrying trends.

“The government has its own reform agenda in place. I would like to see the government speed up the process of reform and the process of democratization,” Subedi told reporters February 24, following the conclusion of a 10-day visit to the country.

If his objective is not to offend Mr. Hun Sen and the Cambodian government, then he has no room at all.

“If the reform agenda was speeded up and if the process of democratization was accelerated, many people would be able to enjoy their human rights, and the economic development that has been taking place in this country would be beneficial for all.”

Rights groups have frequently criticized the government for its track record on land rights and freedom of speech. Local watchdog Adhoc, for example, estimated that land dispute cases affected more than 25,000 families in 2010. Key figures with the main opposition party, meanwhile, have faced court actions that saw the party’s leader leave the country in self-exile; another prominent member had her parliamentary immunity revoked.

In his comments Thursday, Subedi said he continued to be troubled by such problems.

“I am concerned about the narrowing of space for people to express their views peacefully and without fear, including those belonging to different political parties,” he said.

Stormy relationship

The visit represented Subedi’s fourth official mission here since he was appointed to his role in March 2009. That he still manages to obtain an audience with the country’s leadership, however, is somewhat of a feat on its own.

Subedi’s predecessor, Kenyan legal scholar Yash Ghai, had a stormy relationship with Cambodia’s leaders, who did not take kindly to the envoy’s blunt critiques. By the time Ghai quit in late 2008, Prime Minister Hun Sen had taken to launching personal critiques of the envoy in public speeches.

In recent months, the government has also angrily accused others, including the UN’s top representative in Cambodia, of meddling in its internal affairs.

Subedi, then, has taken a noticeably more cautious approach during his visits here. His criticisms Thursday were tempered by acknowledgement of what he said were positive moves.

The government, he said, recognizes that it needs to reform the judiciary. Subedi has recommended that the government take steps to ensure the legal system is free from political influence – rights groups claim the government has often used the courts to silence its harshest critics. The government has also passed new legislation, including a revamped penal code and laws on demonstration and land expropriation.

Subedi said he was focused on taking a different approach than his predecessor.

“Rather than looking at individual cases in isolation, I’m looking at the whole structure,” he said.

“Institutional approaches, structural approaches, the laws should be reformed, the legal regime should be strengthened and government policy should be improved. That’s the approach I’m taking.”

Even so, the reaction to Subedi has not always been rosy.


Last September, the rights envoy issued a report highlighting what he said was a worrying lack of political independence in the legal system.

“On a number of occasions and especially in high-profile political cases, the judiciary seems to have allowed itself to be used or manipulated for political or purely private purposes,” Subedi wrote in his report to the UN Human Rights Council.

“The courts are not trusted by the people to provide impartial justice.”

At least one senior lawmaker objected to the findings.

“Based on my observations, Mr. Subedi is not different from Yash Ghai,” parliamentarian Cheam Yeap was quoted as saying in the English-language Phnom Penh Post newspaper.

And when Subedi stated he was “disappointed” he was unable to meet with Hun Sen during a visit last June, the premier – who had called in sick – said the remark was disrespectful.

Subedi, then, faces a difficult balancing act when it comes to fulfilling his mission in Cambodia: being a vocal critic could risk alienating a government with which he must ultimately work; underplaying key concerns, however, could render him ineffective.

“He has all the room in the world [to criticize],” said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights. “But if his objective is not to offend Mr. Hun Sen and the Cambodian government, then he has no room at all.”

However, Virak said he believes Subedi has managed to balance the two sides so far, though it may well be because a Cambodian government still dependent on international donors realizes that it must tolerate his presence.

“He has been pretty diplomatic and critical at the same time,” Virak said. “I think he’s pretty straightforward in his criticism. He’s been outspoken on some core issues that I think most of us in human rights have identified.”

Whether or not that will result in substantial changes, however, remains to be seen.

In 2009, the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review made 91 sweeping recommendations aimed at improving Cambodia’s rights record, including addressing judicial independence, rampant corruption and land evictions. Cambodia later accepted all 91 of the recommendations, though it’s unclear how the government plans to implement them, if at all.

“Is it an indication that Cambodia agrees to all of them? Or is it an indication the Cambodian government doesn’t care about these recommendations and the UPR process,” Virak said. “Whether Subedi’s own concerns will have an impact, I don’t know.”

A version of this story was first published by IPS.