Phnom Penh Post-April 17, 1997
Military, judiciary at top of U.N. envoy's concerns

Successive UN Special Human Rights Representatives have wrestled with how best to approach their work in Cambodia. Thomas Hammarberg, after 10 months in the job, has made public his mounting concerns about human rights. This is an Edited transcript of a Mar. 18th press conference

I have concluded my third visit to Cambodia since last May when I took on the task to represent the UN Secretary-General on human rights in this country. As before I have traveled in the provinces, this time in Battambang and Koh Kong and visited prisons, police stations, courts and had discussions with provincial leaders. Here, in Phnom Penh I met with co-Ministers of Interior Sar Kheng and You Hockry and the minister of Defense Tea Banh, as well as the Military Court and the Military Prosecutor. I have also had meeting with defenders and non-governmental organizations.

This time I have looked again into issues I have raised in earlier reports, among them the functioning of the judicial system, the freedom of speech, the preparation of the elections and measures against landmines. I have focused on some new aspects of importance: 1 ) violations of human rights by military personnel and the judicial response thereto, 2) interrogation methods used by the police and 3) the possibilities for Cambodian children to enjoy their right to education. On education I will recommend the international community to support present efforts to develop the school system further, in particular in order to help poor children, including girls, to a meaningful education. Let me raise some other issues as I have understood them.

First, violations by the military. In Battangang I had useful discussions with the acting commander of the Fifth Military Region and his colleagues which I then followed up during the meeting with the Defense Minister and the officials of the provincial court and the Military Court. We have, sadly, received a number of reports about military abuses of civilians. Though mentioned in the media these reports have not been. It is essential that the authorities act firmly on such reported violations. It was important that the Minister of Justice recently asked for exhumation of a body in a case of reported ill treatment. In fact, it turned out that the body in that case showed signs of torture. Regrettably, this investigation did not try to establish the cause of death in spite of the fact that a police report about "suicide" was questionable.

A third concern of mine is the fact that the judicial system still does not function well. The political authorities should take radical measures to safeguard the independence of the judiciary. It is not independent today. Several measures should be taken without delay.

One is to convene the Supreme Council of Magistracy. This body is key for the appointment of new judges and in general for the functioning of the justice system. Without the Supreme Council the necessary reforms of the system are blocked. It is most unfortunate that the convening or not of the Supreme Council has been turned into divisive party political issue. I appeal strongly to the two major forces within the Government to seek, jointly, a way out of this deadlock...

Question: But how could this be done?

I have understood one party to say that the present judiciary is totally partisan and that this political bias would be perpetuated if the Supreme Council was formed on that basis. The other party says that if the judiciary shall be non-political, new judges --and members of the Supreme Council -- should not be appointed on the basis of their political sympathies. I am convinced that there are ways moving out of the impasse if there is a political will. The recommendation to the King to convene the Supreme Council could be part of a broader package to safeguard the independence and integrity of the judiciary. Measures to sever any link between a judge and a political party. Steps to remedy the serious problem of corruption within the justice system, including increasing the salaries. Another important measure would be to amend article 51 of the Civil Servants Act which today in many cases effectively blocks the possibility of arresting and prosecuting state officials.

On the latter point, I have been informed that the Minister of Justice has drafted an amendment to this law which would improve this piece of legislation considerably. I hope it will be approved. There should be no reason for further delays on this, in talks with the First Prime Minister and the Second Prime Minister already last year I got assurances that they would work for a change of article 51. 1978. These crimes were 'crimes against humanity' and have to be thoroughly investigated. It is of greatest importance that the full truth is exposed and responsibility clarified.

I have suggested a discussion about the establishment of a 'truth commission' for that purpose. Such bodies have been set up in some other countries, in South Africa and in Latin America. The commission for El Salvador had international members. As the example of South Africa shows, such investigation procedures do not exclude the possibility of pardon and forgiveness at the end, the point is that facts and responsibilities be established.

I believe this is a most important issue but I am aware that the initiative has to come from within. Any process must be initiated by Cambodian authorities themselves. If, however, they suggest international support for such an initiative I pledge to argue for a positive response.

I have to raise one other matter relating to justice. I am extremely concerned about the fact that acts of political violence have gone unpunished. Soon after I took on this task for the Secretary-General one journalist was murdered here in Phnom Penh, Thun Bun Ly. His case in still not clarified. In November last year I wrote to the Government and appended a memorandum on this and other cases of violent attacks against journalists. I recommended serious investigations into the cases and also an investigation into why such thorough investigations had not been undertaken or not been successful so far. Until today that is correct. I am disappointed about the lack of response from the Government on several concrete and reasonable recommendations. The Ministry of Justice has got little support in its efforts to develop the rule of law, including the building of an effective judiciary. Concrete cases of serious human rights violations have not been acted upon.

Let me mention one more example. When I was here in December I visited the prison in Kompong Speu and talked with the prison director, the staff, the prisoners and the non-governmental groups and the court staff. They all complained that there was not enough food for the prisoners. The disbursements of money from the Ministry of Interior for the food were long delayed. Money had been borrowed on an emergency basis on the local market. The interest was high which reduced the value of the budget allocation.

The end result was a serious reduction in the amount of food to the prisoners which caused malnutrition and illnesses among the prisoners. I raised this already then in December with the Government. An important principle is involved. Prisoners have been deprived of their liberty, they have not been sentenced to starvation. Now when I visit the prisons in Battambang and Koh Kong I learn of exactly the same problem. Budget allocations are coming more than two months late. This is unacceptable. It should not be difficult to administer the budget payments more efficiently.

Question: How does your suggestion about a truth commission relate to the amnesty given to Ieng Sary and others?

I have not understood the amnesty given by the King to be a blanket one but limited to cover any prosecution according to the 1994 law against Khmer Rouge and the sentence passed as a result of the 1979 trial. This should not prevent any procedure to establish a truth commission. Also , to me it is clear that the 1979 process had shortcomings and should not be seen as the final judicial answer to the standards, arrests and prosecutions on the basis of objective evidence and within the law. I am concerned that procedures were not respected in this case. I will follow the further development with keen interest.

Question: Do you see any connection, between cases of torture and the fact that we are coming closer to elections?

No, I have not made that connection. Some of the cases reported have been relating to people suspected of having Khmer Rouge relations. In other cases there seem not to have been a political aspect. One pattern, however, seems to be that the policemen feel compelled to get a confession and that within 48 tours, that is before the suspect is to be brought to the court. The police is lot well educated in obtaining other evidence than a confession. Also, there Is not sufficient disincentive against violent interrogation.

Question: How would you react to a decision to postpone the elections?

The national elections should be held next year. That is an agreement and a promise. I am aware of the risk of human rights violations in the midst of the election fever, that campaigning could get out of hand. But that has to be prevented through agreements on the rules of the game between the parties, mature political leadership and an effective and a human rights-oriented policy for law and order.

The elections should be -- and be seen to be -- genuinely free and fair. An independent mechanism, an election commission, is needed to guarantee this. In fact, I found the speech that co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng gave in November 1995 a good inventory of necessary steps to ensure free and fair elections. However, implementation has been delayed. Remember that the right to political participation is an important human right.

Question: So, you see no reason to postpone the elections? No reason that stands out as convincing.

Police Brutality