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Press briefing notes on resignation of Deputy High Commissioner and Cambodia

Spokespersons for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Rupert Colville / Ravina Shamdasani
Location: Geneva
Date: 24 July 2015

(1) Resignation of Deputy High Commissioner

I would just like to set the record straight about the resignation of the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Flavia Pansieri earlier this week.

On Wednesday, after she had informed the High Commissioner that she had reluctantly – because of her health situation – decided she could not continue to fulfil her very demanding functions, he sent a message to all staff relaying her decision and expressing his own regret and wishes for her speedy recovery. He also noted that she had requested that this news remain internal initially, until she had herself informed her friends and former colleagues of her decision.

Regrettably that wish was not honoured and within a few hours the news was spreading with the added insinuation that the reason for her resignation was linked to the ongoing investigations into the handling of the alleged sexual abuse of children by French troops in CAR.

Since every single article published about her resignation has made that link, and either said or strongly implied that the reasons relating to her personal health were simply an excuse, she has authorized me to give a little more information about her health, something which – as would be the case with most of us – she would have preferred to remain private.

Flavia Pansieri has had three separate serious medical conditions since the beginning of this year, and has twice been admitted as an emergency case to hospital, first of all in January and then again in early July, when she underwent an emergency operation for a detached retina. She is currently recuperating from that operation, but it is still not clear if she will regain her vision in the affected eye.

Pansieri, who – as the High Commissioner put it in his note to the staff – had nobly agreed to come out of retirement to work for almost three years at OHCHR, has reasonably enough decided to finally prioritize her health and family. She also recognizes that in her current state of health, she cannot guarantee that she will regain the energy and stamina required for the very demanding job of Deputy High Commissioner. She has however said she is still available to carry out the functions, as best she can, until a replacement is appointed.

The High Commissioner stressed how grateful he is “for her continuous commitment to this Office and the extraordinary dedication she has shown while fulfilling her very onerous workload, often going beyond the call of duty.” He also deeply regrets the way his message to staff was leaked prematurely, and the manner in which her genuinely serious health situation was treated with such disrespect.

(2) Cambodia

The Cambodian Senate today adopted a draft Law on Associations and NGOs which falls significantly short of international human rights laws and norms governing the right to freedom of association. The draft law threatens the existence of a free and independent civil society in Cambodia and the crucial work that NGOs in the country carry out on development, governance, and human rights.

The draft law was adopted by the National Assembly last week (13 July) by 68 ruling party lawmakers, in the absence of the 55 opposition parliamentarians boycotting the session. Today, the Senate adopted it (it was adopted by the 44 ruling party members who were present, in the absence of the 11 opposition senators who boycotted the session) despite protests by hundreds of people in Phnom Penh and the provinces over the last few weeks against the draft law. The law will now have to be examined by the Constitutional Council. We urge the Council to reject the bill, which carries provisions that breach the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which Cambodia has ratified and which is recognized in the country’s constitution.

Laws like this, which allow the authorities to de-register associations that they consider not to be “politically neutral” are very detrimental. The law would allow the Government to deny registration on ill-defined bases, including if the purpose and goal of the association is perceived to “endanger the security, stability and public order or jeopardize national security, national unity, culture, traditions, and customs of Cambodian national society.” These broad provisions, plus the criminal penalties in the bill against NGOs that operate without registration, will cause a chilling effect on the work of such groups.

In another worrying development, 11 opposition activists were convicted and sentenced last Tuesday (21 July) to between seven and 20 years’ imprisonment for participating or leading an “insurrection”, following a post-election protest which turned violent on 15 July 2014. We are concerned about the convictions, especially as there were irregularities in the conduct of the trial, which our office monitored. The ruling relies on the use of witness statements by individuals who were not available for cross examination so that their credibility could be tested. There was also no evidence presented in open court to prove that the defendants directly committed any acts of violence or that the violence would endanger the institutions of the country at the time. The perception of governmental interference in this case undermines public trust in the Cambodian justice system and, should the 11 activists choose to appeal, we call for the fair trial defects to be corrected then.


For more information, please contact Rupert Colville (+41 22 917 9711 / rcolville@ohchr.org) or Ravina Shamdasani (+41 22 917 9169 /
rshamdasani@ohchr.org) or Cécile Pouilly (+41 22 917 9310 / cpouilly@ohchr.org).