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Effective partnership for rights in Cambodia

Over a thousand detainees in Siem Reap prison, Cambodia, now have increased supply of water for daily drinking, cooking and personal hygiene due to an innovative partnership between the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia (OHCHR-Cambodia) and the government.

OHCHR-Cambodia helps build a 1750m pipeline to bring water from the city network to the prison - © OHCHR-Cambodia / S. SemWater and sanitation engineer Sem Samnang visited Cambodia’s third largest prison last February. He found that without access to the provincial water supply system, the 1300 prisoners in Siem Reap had to rely on limited underground water alone for drinking, preparing meals, washing and sewage disposal.

Together with his team in OHCHR-Cambodia’s Prison Reform Support Programme, Samnang worked with the prison authorities to install a rain-water harvesting system for Siem Reap prison.

The prisoners now have access to an average of over 8,000 litres of additional water per day, which makes a real difference to their sanitation and living conditions. The system also has the additional benefits of providing water free of charge, while helping to preserve the underground water resources. 

This is one of the many telling examples of the programme, which since its launch in 2008 has also successfully advocated for an almost doubling of daily food ration per detainee, from the equivalent of US$ 0.37 to US$ 0.70, in all the 24 prisons across the country.

“The programme takes a holistic approach. It’s about human rights monitoring and at the same time working with the General Department of Prisons (GDP) to tackle the root causes of problems,” says Marie-Dominique Parent, OHCHR-Cambodia Human Rights Officer in charge of the programme.

“Detainees’ rights are much broader than civil and political rights. So we look at all aspects of life in prison including food, health, sanitation and water, and help the prison authorities to find practical solutions to address these issues.”

Her team can visit all the prisons in Cambodia and conduct confidential interviews with detainees. These visits allow OHCHR-Cambodia to provide an independent and objective assessment of prison conditions and work with the government to help meet the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

The GDP highlighted several OHCHR concerns in its 2008 annual report. Prisons are severely overcrowded. Living in congested cells, insufficient food supply, poor health services, and insufficient water and sanitation facilities all adversely affect detainees’ health and rights.

“It is very important for OHCHR to visit our prisons…. The UN is playing a very important role to prevent the violation of prisoners’ [rights],” says General Heng Hak, Director General of Prisons in Cambodia.

“Before, prison authorities did not dare talk to OHCHR. They thought the UN would come find problems and then complain to higher authorities. Now they understand that the UN comes, helps find the problems and helps solve the problems as well.”

Heng points out that partnership with OHCHR-Cambodia has led to concrete improvements of prison conditions in his country. “Now we’d like OHCHR to play a special role to get more NGOs as partners,” he says.

Sustainable prison reform efforts must involve the local communities. OHCHR-Cambodia also supports the drafting of a new law on the management of prisons consistent with international human rights standards, and works to facilitate cooperation between Cambodian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the prison authorities.

“We also raise difficult issues such as torture, corruption and food with the government but do so in a manner that is not perceived as hostile. We discuss issues of concerns and we find solutions together,” says Christophe Peschoux, head of OHCHR-Cambodia.

Peschoux points out that this approach of “critical and constructive engagement” is producing tangible results in other areas of the office’s work as well. “If we do not engage with them, we cannot help them improve the protection of people. We do not have the means of protection, the authorities do.”

30 December 2009