Candidates vetted to replace UN human rights rapporteur

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Outgoing UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith. Heng Chivoan

Rhona Smith, the departing UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Cambodia, has revealed three potential candidates to fill her position, while government officials expect Smith’s successor to follow her path and work professionally.

In a Facebook post on January 29, Smith said the UN Human Rights Council had announced the shortlist of candidates while the Consultative Group, which is comprised of representatives of member states, had now completed interviews with them.

The three candidates are Vitit Muntarbhorn from Thailand, Urmila Bhoola from South Africa and Catherine Morris from Canada.

“This recommendation is now with the Human Rights Council President who is consulting with regional groups of states to secure consensus. In late March, the Council will decide who is appointed. That person will take over on May 1, 2021,” she said.

According to the UN Human Rights Council website, the three finalists were selected from a pool of nine applicants.

On his application, Vitit of Thailand said he had studied and worked in various aspects of the law and human rights, both within the UN framework and with other international organisations.

He previously served as the first UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in North Korea.

“I have some 30 years of experience internationally and I have been familiar with the Cambodian human rights situation since 1979 when I first encountered many Cambodian refugees,” he wrote.

Bhoola of South Africa is a human rights lawyer with over 30 years experience as well. She is currently Acting Judge of the High Court of South Africa and a former Judge of the Labour Court.

She used to work on various human rights issues in Cambodia such as defending labour rights and supporting the campaign for the release of Boeung Kak Lake land activist Yorm Bopha.

Morris of Canada focused her PhD studies on international human rights and dispute resolution, and her thesis examined conflicts and human rights in Cambodia.

She has designed and conducted courses and workshops on negotiation, alternative dispute resolution, conflict management and peace building in countries on five continents.

Morris first visited and worked in Cambodia back in 1995.

“I [would] seek to maintain an impartial focus on building positive relationships with people in all sectors to work towards encouragement of the implementation of international human rights laws, principles and standards [in a way that is] binding on Cambodia,” she wrote on her application form.

Cambodian Human Rights Committee (CHRC) spokesman Chin Malin said he assumed that a new human rights special rapporteur will continue to cooperate productively with all relevant parties. Smith’s successor, he said, should make reports and analyses regarding the human rights situation in Cambodia in a fair and impartial manner in order to maintain a good working relationship with the government, civil society organisations (CSOs) and opposition groups.

“We also expect that their research, analysis and reports will focus on practical steps that can be taken in a Cambodian context rather than solely on philosophical theories and principles. A special rappoteur should learn about Cambodia’s situation and understand it clearly.

“This will make their reports and recommendations responsive to the needs of the people and the whole Cambodian nation,” he said, referring to the confluence of factors like history, the economy, society, culture and politics.

“No human rights situation in any country is perfect and ... implementation varies in accordance with the context of one society or another society,” he said.

Malin praised Smith for performing her work relatively well.

He said Smith was able to do so because she had worked in Cambodia prior to accepting the role as a special rapporteur and that during her mandate her cooperative efforts were welcomed from all of the leading institutions in Cambodia.

Malin said her reports dealt with Cambodia’s challenging problems while also recognising Cambodia’s positive achievements.

Cambodian Institute for Democracy president Pa Chanroeun agreed that Smith had performed her work well although the human rights situation in Cambodia, he said, had deteriorated somewhat since 2017.

He said Smith was always willing to meet for talks with CSOs, political parties, ordinary people and the government.

He noted that the next special rapporteur would face more challenges than Smith did if the political situation in Cambodia remained unchanged within one or two years.

“The job ahead of this [next] special tapporteur will require a person who has know-how and skills in the area of effective advocacy using coordinated action. They should study the human rights situation and democratic process in Cambodia deeply and use their office and their powers strategically and only make challenges that will ultimately be effective,” he said.