Independent rights body to be established

Cambodian activists and government leaders convened on 6-7 December to draw up a framework for an independent rights body, the first of its kind, as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) vies for a stronger human rights role.


Representatives from government, the UN and NGOs agreed that a national human rights institution (NHRI) outside government influence was needed to conform to the Paris Principles, rights standards adopted by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) in 1991.


After every ASEAN member state establishes an NHRI, the groups will form an ASEAN human rights mechanism or court.


Cambodia will be the fifth country to ratify an NHRI, after Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia.


The ASEAN Charter, recognising the Human Rights Working Group as an entity associated with ASEAN, was ratified in November 2007, making it a legal entity.


"The problem in Cambodia is that no human rights body is independent and fair," Pa Nguon Teang, secretary-general of the Cambodia Working Group (CWG) for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism, told IRIN. "Corruption is widespread in Cambodia's courts, which have failed to enforce human rights laws."


International donors pledged a record US$1 billion at a meeting on 5 December despite concerns of misuse, compared with $690 million last year.




Yet advocates warned the body should not overtake court authority, but only supplement it.


"It should not be seen as a substitute for other institutions not functioning well," James Turpin, legal associate of the Cambodia office for the UN human rights agency, said.


He added that Cambodia's courts were instigating reforms and that the NHRI should "work with them".


Others said the body would make it easier for rural poor Cambodians to become part of the system.


"They [the UN] have a very complicated human rights system that isn't accessible to many people in developing countries," Teang told IRIN. "We're trying to make human rights available and easy to understand for the poor."


He added that technological developments in rich countries had outpaced those in poor countries, and that international human rights organisations were not keeping this in mind when they did outreach.


Rights record


During the UN peacekeeping mission in Cambodia (UNTAC) in 1992, the UN and NGOs first tried to educate Cambodians about human rights through TV, radio and school programmes.


The outreach programmes spread during the 1990s, when the government was fighting Khmer Rouge factions in the countryside.


Yet rights violations persisted, with regular disappearances and political killings during what Christophe Peschoux, director of the Cambodia office for the UN rights agency, called the "law of the gun".


The government is still criticised by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International for rights abuses, mostly notably a 1997 military coup in which hundreds of opposition supporters were allegedly tortured or killed, and for failing to protect poor people from forced land evictions.