Cambodia’s land concession system has undermined the rights of the poor and led to the plundering of natural resources and must be urgently overhauled, a United Nations human rights envoy said Sunday.
The special representative of the UN secretary-general for human rights in Cambodia, Peter Leuprecht, also said at the end of his 11th mission here that impunity and corruption remain top rights issues in the destitute kingdom.
Leuprecht said the kingdom’s land concession policy, which saw a third of its most productive territory handed to private companies for commercial development from 1993 to 1999, "has been wrong".
"I’ve found that concessions and concessionaires show no or little regard for people and that their activities lead to a number of human rights violations," he told a press briefing.
"They are not reducing poverty among the people concerned. In addition I’ve found that these concessions contribute little if anything to state revenue," he said, a day after a grenade attack by an unknown assailant injured six people protesting a concession in northwestern Pursat province.
"They are contributing to the plundering of natural resources in Cambodia and they are part of the process, which is characterised I understand in Khmer, by the expression ‘eating the kingdom’."
The special envoy, who also released a report into concessions, called for better access to information.
"What concessions exist, who the concessionaire companies are, what the contracts are, who the shareholders in the companies are, should be made publicly available," he added.
At present about 2.7 million hectares (6.7 million acres) are under concession management, down from a peak of around eight million hectares during the 1990s.
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen last month announced a suspension on granting them until better legislation was in place and condemned rampant land grabbing.
The special envoy met the premier, the recently-crowned King Norodom Sihamoni, top ministers, political party leaders, civil society members, diplomats and people affected by concessions.
He said he discussed impunity and corruption with officials.
"We continue to raise the issue of impunity because it’s a serious problem for Cambodian society… and I believe that we have to look at impunity as a system related to the structures of power in the country," he said.
He also said he had advocated that Cambodia ratify the UN convention against corruption, which Hun Sen said he would consider.
"However, I say and I repeat that adopting legal standards is one thing — action is another thing and investigating and prosecuting cases of corruption is another which must be done."
Cambodia is still recovering after nearly three decades of conflict, including the murderous 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, and corruption also infiltrates the barely-functioning judicial system.
Leuprecht said he would tell UN secretary-general Kofi Annan that he was "not allowed to make a single mistake when it comes to the choice of international judges" for a forthcoming trial of surviving Khmer Rouge leaders.
Cambodian and international judges will be on the tribunal, but Leuprecht said "there are questions about the independence of Cambodian judges", a common refrain among critics here.