The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation called on the US Embassy in Phnom Penh on Saturday to respect the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations after it called former opposition leader Kem Sokha “an innocent man” – a move deemed to be “disrespecting Cambodia’s sovereignty”.
The ministry expressed “great surprise and concern” over the embassy’s comments on Friday that there was “No evidence. No trial. No justice” in the case of Sokha, who is currently on bail awaiting trial on a treason charge.
The ministry’s rebuke came after the US Embassy posted a message on its official Facebook page saying: “Did you know Kem Sokha has now been in detention for nearly 18 months? That’s 530 days of captivity.
“He is an innocent man, being held unjustly under false pretences. There is no evidence against him, and no trial date has been set. No evidence. No trial. No justice. Are you seeing #thefullpictureKH?”
The following day, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement expressing “great surprise and concern” at the action of the US, saying the embassy’s post was intended to mislead the public.
It said it regarded the US Embassy’s move as “undiplomatic and interference in [the Kingdom’s] internal affairs, and [that it] disrespected Cambodia’s sovereignty”.
“The Ministry is compelled to remind the US Embassy in Phnom Penh to refer to Article 41 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, which particularly requires the Mission to respect the law and regulations, and not to interfere in the internal affairs of Cambodia."
“Cambodia always respects the sovereignty of other countries and has never commented on the disgraceful scandals of senior officials and politicians of any country."
“The step taken by the US Embassy in this biased direction runs counter to the ongoing efforts of the two nations in improving the bilateral relationships for the shared interests of the two countries and peoples."
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation wishes to reaffirm Cambodia’s commitment to upholding the rule of law and the maintenance of peace, stability and public order which Cambodian people are currently enjoying,” the statement said.
Ruling Cambodian People’s Party spokesman Sok Eysan also hit back at the embassy on Sunday.
“First they say Kem Sokha is an innocent man because he has not robbed or stolen – he just used to steal rice in the 1980s [a reference to an accusation Sokha had spent several months in prison in 1979 or 1980 for stealing rice when he was a commune or district chief in Phnom Penh].
“Second, the Criminal Code permits 18 months in detention [for those awaiting trial] and it has not exceeded that [timeframe] yet, so why are you scared?"
“Third, how can charges be dropped when there is clear evidence? If you do not believe [it], ask the person [concerned]. Fourth, you want us to release a violator of the law, so we need to throw away the rule of law and have a culture of impunity instead?
“Fifth, [you claim to be] a diplomat, but [you] do not understand the law on diplomatic relations,” Eysan wrote on Telegram.
Paris Peace Accords
Emily Zeeberg, the spokesperson for the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, told The Post on Sunday that, as one of the 18 signatories to the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, the US had a responsibility to see that democracy and human rights are respected in Cambodia.
She said Cambodia could not have a productive relationship with the US until this was resolved properly and respectfully.
“Unfortunately, the Cambodian government is not honouring its obligations under the Paris Peace Accords to protect human rights and democracy. Kem Sokha has been accused of conspiring with the United States to overthrow the government, which is absurd and false. So the Cambodian government has involved us directly in this,” Zeeberg said.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said as a signatory to the Paris Peace Accords, the US had an obligation to help Cambodia with development but also needed to respect its sovereignty.
“The important thing is that the embassy needs to review the things stated in the agreement as those [signatory] countries need to respect Cambodian sovereignty."
“Those signatories are just partners and they are not the courts and have no authority to order Cambodia to do this or that. The embassy is just an office representing the US to work on good relations and cooperation,” he said.
‘Right to express opinion’
However, political analyst Meas Nee said the embassy’s statement was not interference in Cambodian affairs because it had the right to express its opinion.
He added that if it did amount to interference in Cambodia’s internal affairs, then the Chinese embassy was also guilty as it issued a statement supporting the government after Sokha was arrested and the CNRP dissolved in 2017.
But Kin Phea, the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia director-general, supported the ministry’s statement.
He said the US Embassy had indeed violated the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which does not permit an embassy to interfere into the internal affairs of the receiving state.
“The US should clearly review international law. It should not use its influence to undermine the two countries’ bilateral relationship,” he said.
He added that the US Embassy’s statement went beyond the expression of opinion because it had violated Cambodia’s laws and sovereignty, adding that the move was politically motivated and intended to provoke hostility towards Cambodia.