EXCLUSIVE: Interview with UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Rhona Smith

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UN human rights envoy Rhona Smith holds a press conference at the conclusion of her mission to the Kingdom yesterday. KT/Khem Sovannara

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia yesterday wrapped up her visit by highlighting changes the government could initiate to improve human rights and political freedom in the Kingdom.

During a press conference, UN rights envoy Rhona Smith said there have been improvements, but more are needed.

“Since my last mission, I see few tangible improvements in the enjoyment of political rights,” Ms Smith said. “I remain concerned about perceived pressure on former members of the dissolved CNRP.”

She said she is aware the courts have convicted at least six former opposition members and supporters since her last visit, noting that about 80 former CNRP members at the sub-national level are facing intimidation.

Regarding the political rivalry between former opposition leaders and members of the CPP-led government, Ms Smith said the political culture in Cambodia has to improve.

“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,” she said. “This, together with judicial protection of freedom of expression, would help overcome the challenges of the current political situation for the benefit of all Cambodians.”

In previous statements, Ms Smith called on the government to review the law on political parties and various electoral laws in a bid to bring them in line with international standards that Cambodia itself had ratified.

Ms Smith also again called for the release of former opposition leader Kem Sokha, who is currently on bail under court supervision. She said the investigation into Mr Sokha’s treason case should be concluded or the charges dropped.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan yesterday reiterated that the government cannot interfere in court proceedings.

Mr Siphan said Ms Smith should instead recognise political stability and social security in the Kingdom.

“Ms Smith may notice the initiative of the Supreme Consultative Council, which is a group of political party representatives who were invited to offer inputs in the country’s development,” he said. “They have had enough space to express and criticise.”

Regarding the CNRP, Mr Siphan said Ms Smith placed her concerns in the wrong direction.

“This opposition group incited people to cause social unrest, discrimination against other races, and protests against the government rather than sitting down and figuring out solutions,” he said. “These are problems she should not have overlooked.”

UN rights envoy Rhona Smith leads a press conference yesterday. KT/Khem Sovannara

Former opposition party lawmaker Ou Chanrath yesterday said Ms Smith has accurately described Cambodia’s political situation.

Mr Chanrath said the government must be open to following her recommendations.

“It’s clear that the government continues to annoy numerous former CNRP officials in courts and threaten them with prison time,” he said. “It’s unrealistic. The government should end the political prosecution and make more improvements as recommended.”

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