A legal scholar at the University of Leeds has received backing from Barack Obama for his recommendations on Cambodian reform.
Surya Subedi, professor of international law, serves as the United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia, one of only 10 mandate holders responsible for countries that present particularly significant challenges.
He has visited the country eight times, most recently at the end of last year, and has produced a series of reports on essential judicial, parliamentary and electoral reforms.
Although relations with the Cambodian authorities have turned “rather sour”, Professor Subedi stressed that he was “in constant dialogue” with them.
“I have taken a constructive approach, rather than naming and shaming, so a working relationship is still in place,” he said.
He also pointed to a number of positive achievements.
“The government of Cambodia had a bill…about [non-governmental organisations], which I thought would undermine the freedom of association guaranteed under international law. So I intervened at the highest level and it has effectively been shelved,” he explained.
Other successes include the appointment of retired senior judges to the country’s electoral committee and extra money for the judiciary.
Nonetheless, there is a long way to go before Cambodia addresses all his concerns, and Professor Subedi is grateful for the support he has received from the European Parliament and a number of countries.
And he now has backing from an even more powerful quarter.
Mr Obama became the first American president to visit Cambodia when attending the US-Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit there last November.
This was followed up by a letter from the US State Department, on behalf of the president, saying that the US had called on Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, in power since 1985, to heed Professor Subedi’s advice.
David Adams, assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, wrote that Mr Obama “had called Cambodia’s lack of respect for fundamental freedoms a fundamental ‘impediment’ to a deeper bilateral relationship…countries that do not uphold certain universal principles, such as respect for human rights, will have more difficulty integrating with the international community.”
This led in December to a headline in The Phnom Penh Post, Cambodia’s leading English-language newspaper: “Rapporteur backed: Rights or a rough ride, warns US”.
At the very least, Professor Subedi said, he expected that the US “will take a keen interest in electoral reform in the lead-up to Cambodia’s parliamentary elections in July”.