UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia Rhona Smith said the government could if it chose improve human rights in Cambodia, “and then there will be not so much issue if EBA [the EU’s preferential Everything But Arms agreement] or indeed any other agreement is at stake”.
Smith was speaking to journalists after a closed-door meeting with the president of the government’s Cambodian Human Rights Committee, Keo Remy.
She said she was aware that she would not be able to meet Kem Sokha as he is under “judicial detention” but had no plans to meet his lawyer, as Remy called the former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) president’s bail the “best” situation.
When asked about the situation regarding EBA, Smith said: “I think for any development partners in Cambodia that have concerns about human rights, I think there are ways in which the government can take small steps that will dramatically improve the human rights situation in the country.
“Not just for the EU, but also for other development partners of choice in Cambodia."
“I think there are issues and challenges. You can take steps in one way [and] you can have challenges in others. I think the government can certainly, if it chooses, improve the human rights situation in Cambodia, and then there will not be so much issue if the EBA or indeed any other agreement is at stake.”
The preferential agreement is considered crucial to the Kingdom’s economy as it is worth $676 million annually in terms of tax and duty-free exports to the EU.
“There is a need to ensure freedom of expression, assembly, association, strong civil society and also to ensure that there is no persecution of people lawfully exercising freedom of expression,” Smith said.
Regarding Sokha, Remy said he told Smith that the court’s decision to bail the former opposition leader was the “best” situation.
“I told her that in the case of Kem Sokha, being detained in his house is the best situation. Our human rights committee is happy because his health is not good. It is better for his family to take care of him,” he said.
“I think [this is] an important part of respecting [his] human rights as his health is not good."
“[Now] he receives good care from his family. I think this is the best.”
“I did not directly discuss His Excellency Kem Sokha,” Smith said. It was mentioned by his Excellency Keo Ramy that [Kem Sokha] remains in judicial detention at the moment, which I am aware.
“That’s why I am unable to meet with him. I have no plans to see his lawyer.” Smith said that since her last visit to Cambodia in March, there had been “lots of changes”, without giving specific examples.
“I think if anyone comes to Cambodia and goes away and comes back three months or four months or five months later, they will see lots of changes every time. Things change all the time in Cambodia. Some changes are for the better; some changes may be problems. This is the same for everyone in Cambodia,” she said.
Remy said that during their meeting he told Smith that “concerning the implementation of the law, I told her Cambodia is the best, but she laughed at me”.
Remy said he compared the situations in Cambodia and the US, with Remy, who used to live in the US and hailed Cambodia as a “tolerant” country.
“I told her: ‘If you stand at a stop light in Cambodia, you will know the implementation of the law in Cambodia is tolerant. I told her that is why I don’t want to go back to the US because the US is strict. If you do something wrong, they will handcuff you."
“I told her in Cambodia, if you stand at the stop light, you will see people pass red lights and the police [feel] no need to fine them at all.”
Smith will conclude her trip with a press conference on Thursday outlining her “preliminary findings”. She is to present a report to the UNHCR in September next year.