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Monday, December 10, 2007

UN envoy, US ambassador lead rare human rights march in Cambodia

The UN's special envoy for human rights and the US ambassador to Cambodia on Monday led a rare march to demand social justice reforms in the impoverished kingdom.

UN rights representative Yash Ghai and US ambassador Joseph Mussomeli joined 500 local rights activists, who carried banners calling for an end to corruption.

"The lesson therefore is that the struggle for human rights and human dignity is unending," Ghai, who arrived here last week, told a rally in Phnom Penh to mark international Human Rights Day.

"The ultimate custodians of human rights and social justice must be the people themselves, just as they must be the custodians of political and economic sovereignty," he added.

Ghai, a Kenyan lawyer who has clashed repeatedly with the government over his blunt appraisals of Cambodia's rights record, said earlier this year that impunity for human rights violations threatened the rule of law there.

He also wrote a report that accused the government of systematically abusing human rights to keep a grip on power.

Relations between the government and UN rights envoys have historically been poor, with Prime Minister Hun Sen calling Ghai and his predecessor Peter Leuprecht "stupid". He has also described Ghai as "rude" and a "god without virtue".

Mussomeli called Ghai a "sincere human rights advocate", but said he had met no one from the government during his current visit.

Among the top human rights concerns in Cambodia is land grabbing, which Ghai and previous envoys have warned could lead to mass unrest as more Cambodians become destitute.

Land seizures by government and military officials as well as businesses have left thousands of families homeless.

Rampant corruption and a lack of credible land records -- most of which were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s -- have made land disputes increasingly common in Cambodia.

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UN says Cambodian courts fail to give justice

The United Nations has criticised Cambodia for failing to protect the rights of the poor, saying land is being routinely seized by large businesses with government connections.

UN rights representative Yash Ghai spoke to reporters at the end of a 10-day visit, during which he said no Cambodian government officials were willing to meet him.

Mr Ghai said the failure of the courts was especially pronounced in cases of land grabbing, and that victims of evictions had little faith the courts would provide them with justice.

He said many Cambodians live in constant fear of being mistreated by authorities.

The AFP newsagency says government officials could not be reached for immediate comment, but Prime Minister Hun Sen has in the past dismissed Mr Ghai and his assessments as "stupid."

Land seizures by government and military officials as well as businesses have left thousands of families homeless in Cambodia.

Rampant corruption and a lack of credible land records -- most of which were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s -- have made land disputes increasingly common in Cambodia.
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UN rights envoy lashes out at Cambodian government

The UN special envoy for human rights in Cambodia Monday chastised the Cambodian government for its rights record at a rally here organised to mark the International Human Rights Day.

Yash Ghai, accompanied by members of 15 local human rights groups, told the gathering that fear still governed Cambodia.

'Fear - fear of the state, fear of political and economic saboteurs, fear of greedy individuals and corporations, fear of the police and the courts - describes the plight of numerous communities and families in Cambodia as they do in many other parts of the world,' he said in a speech.

'The lesson, therefore, is that the struggle for human rights and human dignity is unending as it became so sharply and painfully obvious to me as I met the embattled communities in Dey Krahorm and the Group 78 villages,' he added, referring to two communities where residents are involved in bitter land disputes and are faced with evictions.

The government refused to cooperate with Yash Ghai soon after his 2005 appointment, and have claimed he refuses to acknowledge its progress on human rights in recent years.

Government representatives have refused to see him, and Prime Minister Hun Sen has said on state radio that he should return to his native Kenya and fix the problems there before 'coming to lecture us in Cambodia.'

Despite predictions in local media that the crowd at the rally might top 20,000 people, unofficial estimates by participants put figures at about 4,000, and the police said 1,000 people at the most attended.

Yash Ghai was scheduled to give a press conference later Monday to end his current 10-day visit.
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