‘Sad and relieved’, UN official leaves Cambodia amid disagreements with the government

Updated On: May 10, 2011

Christophe Peschoux, who headed the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for four years, left Phnom Penh on Saturday.

The 52-year-old Frenchman had angered officials by speaking out on controversial issues including land-grabbing by the rich and powerful and crackdowns on government critics, prompting Prime Minister Hun Sen to demand the UN remove him and the foreign ministry to issue a letter ordering officials to freeze him out. His remarks also prompted the government to accuse him of "unacceptable interference" and "acting as a spokesman for the opposition”- charges Peschoux fervently denied.

Prime Minister Hun Sen is the longest serving leader in Southeast Asia, after the Sultan of Brunei, and has vowed to remain in power for another decade, with a vision to bolster the economy. Party officials said the prime minister has helped fuel economic growth, slash poverty and bring economic stability to the nation of 15 million.

Opposition leaders and right groups on the other hand have argued that Hun Sen’s continued rule will only worsen human rights violation and corruption, and result in authoritarian rule.

Background information: Hun Sen: 26 years at the helm [AsiaSociety, Feb 9, 2011]

"Human rights are tolerated to the extent that they do not challenge the political, economic and financial interest of the ruling elite,” Peschoux said, “that is where the red line runs. If you cross that line, trouble starts," he told AFP days before heading to Geneva to take on a senior UN role.

Peschoux’s exit comes just months before the Cambodian government is set to discuss if the UN Human Rights office should be kept open. It also comes as the ruling Cambodian People’s Party is curbing freedoms and silencing critics before the local elections in 2012 and a 2013 general election. Deputy representative James Heenan will take over in this interim period.

Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith did not comment about Peschoux's departure and its implications for the UN office when contacted by AFP, saying only that he wished him well.

"What is so worrisome about Christophe's departure is that he was one of the few UN agency heads who publicly stepped up to oppose (Prime Minister) Hun Sen's intensifying campaign to muzzle critical voices," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Report and Analysis:  Top UN Official leaves Cambodia amid rights concerns [ChannelNewsAsia, May 7 2011]  Myanmar may chair Asean chair despite rights record [The Gulf Today, May 8 2011]

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