THE decision to leave Cambodia’s seat at the United Nations indefinitely vacant marks the biggest blow to Hun Sen’s bid for international legitimacy since he seized power in July, according to diplomats and other political observers. While Prince Norodom Ranariddh also failed to secure the seat, the UN impasse effectively puts the screws on Hun Sen to compromise his tough stance against his exiled co-Prime Minister, analysts said.
It also fuels the growing international belief that national elections are the best way to resolve Cambodia’s political predicament- with the UN seat potentially remaining up-for-grabs if those elections are not seen to be at least somewhat free and fair. While the full diplomatic, aid and investment consequences of the UN decision are yet to become clear, several Phnom Penh diplomats and observers agreed that Hun Sen had suffered a “slap in the face” which could further destabilize Cambodian politics and economics. Following on the heels of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) postponement of Cambodia’s admission to the regional grouping, the Second Prime Minister is now further isolated.
In a surprise move, the UN Credentials Committee – charged with assigning UN seats to delegations from member countries – decided Sept 19 to award Cambodia’s seat to neither of two rival delegations representing Ranariddh and the new Ung Huot-Hun Sen government.
The decision sees Cambodia join the exclusive company of Afghanistan and Sierra Leone as the only countries among the UN’s 185 members whose seats remain vacant because of domestic political strife. The move is likely to herald a considerable worsening in relations between Cambodia and the United States, which, as a member of the Credentials Committee, led the charge against Hun Sen’s regime being given the seat. The US has also lobbied other countries, particularly Japan, Cambodia’s biggest aid donor, not to endorse Hun Sen.
The committee decision also revived memories of the heated competition for Cambodia’s UN seat in the 1980s, amid attempts by the West to make Vietnamese-occupied Cambodia a pariah state. Once again, Cambodia was caught between the Great Powers, with the US facing off against China and the Russian Federation over whether the Hun Sen-aligned delegation should get the UN seat.
At Post press time, Ranariddh, who had personally led his own delegation to lobby members of the UN committee, remained in New York. Hun Sen and Ung Huot, who replaced Ranariddh as First Prime Minister, said they were going ahead with plans to visit the UN also.
Amid speculation that he would cancel his New York trip, Hun Sen said he would go; his aides said a final decision had yet to be made. While Hun Sen said he had no intention of meeting Ranariddh in New York, there remained the prospect of a chance encounter – their first since the Prince’s ouster – between the arch-rivals within the hallowed halls of the UN.
The only prospect of breaking the deadlock over the Cambodia seat appears to be if the two rival factions can persuade the President of the UN General Assembly, which is currently in session, to put the issue to a vote of the body. “It is conceivable that both factions will now have the option of stating their case before the assembly,” said the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative to Cambodia, Lakhan Mehrotra, but he was unable to say how and when that might happen.
Cambodia’s Ambassador to the UN, Prince Sisowath Sirirath – a Ranariddh loyalist who has ignored Phnom Penh’s bid to recall him – hailed the UN Credentials Committee decision as “wise and just”. “The UN itself cannot dishonor the results of the elections organized and supervised in 1993 by the United Nations,” he said of the committee’s refusal to recognize the removal of Ranariddh.
Hun Sen, meanwhile, lashed out at the US for “severely violating the sovereignty of Cambodia”. “It is the seat of the Cambodians… not the Americans,” Hun Sen said Sept 22 in Thailand, en route to France, Japan and then New York. Implying that the UN’s role in coordinating international observers for Cambodia’s 1998 elections was in doubt, he said: “Everyone would like free and fair elections…[but] if the Cambodia seat is kept vacant, what role could the UN play in Cambodia?”
Ung Huot, speaking at Pochen-tong airport Sept 21 as he left for Paris and New York, also expressed anger at the US. “I go to New York – to America, but not to America… to the United Nations, to make my voice and the voice of the Cambodian people heard and tell them about the real situation and to tell them that our people are living happily now compared to before.”
The Credentials Committee decision was “an insult to Cambodia and to His Majesty King Sihanouk,” Ung Huot said, in reference to the King’s written endorsement of the new Ung Huot-Hun Sen delegation. On Sept 2, the King signed a letter to the UN nominating Ung Huot and Hun Sen as the heads of Cambodia’s delegation to the General Assembly – a move which drew complaints from Ranariddh, his son. The King later wrote to Ranariddh saying that he still considered him as First Prime Minister, but that he had felt obliged to sign the letter.
While the UN Credentials Committee’s failure to accept the King’s nomination surprised many diplomats and analysts, one Cambodian political watcher suggested that the King had played a shrewd game. Possibly forewarned of the tough position the US was to take in the Credentials Committee, the King could have felt confident in signing the nomination, knowing that Hun Sen would “lose face” when it was not accepted, the observer suggested.
The nine-member Credentials Committee – compromising representatives of the US, Norway, China, the Russian Federation, Argentina, Barbados, Malawi, Zambia and Bhutan – is bound to make decisions by “consensus”. As it met to consider Cambodia’s seat for the first time on Sept 17, the US publicly staked out a hard anti-Hun Sen line. “The United States will not be in a position to concur in the seating of a Cambodian delegation which represents a regime that seized power through undemocratic means,” State Department spokesman James Rubin told reporters.
The US and Norway are widely reported to have backed Ranariddh’s bid to name his own delegation, while the Russian Federation and China supported the Ung Huot-Hun Sen nomination, at the closed door meeting. The committee postponed making a decision for two days, prompting furious lobbying by Ranariddh’s delegation and a rival advance team representing Ung Huot and Hun Sen – “We’ve got Bhutan,” a Ranariddh aide reported from New York at one point.
At the subsequent Sept 19 meeting, the committee agreed only to make no decision at all. “The committee did not want to take a stand in favor of one delegation or the other,” said Hans Jacob Biorn Lian, the Norwegian Ambassador to the UN, announcing that a decision would be deferred indefinitely. “This is a call upon the parties to recommit and to reconcile.” In Phnom Penh, the news was widely viewed as a major setback for Hun Sen.
“This is very embarrassing for Hun Sen’s Cambodia,” said one diplomatic source. “If Hun Sen craves the international legitimacy we believe he does, this has hit him very hard… he is now isolated and the world will be watching developments in Cambodia very closely.” Said another diplomat: “When taken in the context of the ASEAN decision to delay Cambodia’s membership, this move casts further doubt on the international acceptance of Hun Sen’s government.”
The UN decision could have ramifications for foreign investments, the diplomat said, with Ranariddh able to publicly challenge the legality of any deals done with the Phnom Penh regime.
Dr Lao Mong Hay of the Khmer Institute of Democracy agreed that the diplomatic, political and economic consequences could be great. “It’s very difficult to deal with other governments, to sign international contracts – who would like to deal with a government that is not able to represent its country at a very important international arena? “All these things are bad for Cambodia… and I feel ashamed as a Cambodian, to have our seat denied through the fault of whom?”
Mong Hay said it was quite possible the Cambodia seat would remain vacant until the elections. “Because of this and other factors, the present government has become a caretaker government, like it or not.” He hoped the UN decision would serve to “encourage the government to work hard for legitimacy and for elections”. In reference to neighboring Burma, he said he hoped it might also prevent the “SLORC-ization” of Cambodia if the government lost the elections and refused to give up power, or cheated at them. “If the elections are a sham, the world can still say ‘Sorry, you have to do better than that – your legitimacy is still in question, and your seat at the UN’,” Mong Hay noted. Khieu Kanharith, the Secretary of State for Information (CPP), said the UN committee’s decision would not affect Cambodia’s relations with other countries. “It is different from before 1993, when a number of countries did not recognize our government. But now, we have our embassy in all countries and our bilateral relations will remain unchanged,” he said.
While expressing regret that “the UN does not understand clearly the Cambodian situation”, Kanharith maintained that the situation was a “failure for Ranariddh” because the Prince had also failed to secure the UN seat. Hun Sen, speaking before the Credentials Committee met, appeared to anticipate a setback. “We should not be disappointed because we are used to facing injustice, like when Pol Pot had the UN seat,” he said.
Throughout the 1980s, the UN seat was occupied by a Khmer Rouge delegate, representing then-Prince Sihanouk’s government-in-exile, following Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia. China – which ironically now supports Hun Sen’s right to have the seat – joined with the US and ASEAN in a campaign to withhold the seat from the Vietnam-installed Cambodian government, which included Hun Sen.
Mong Hay said his biggest regret was the repetition of Cambodian history: internal conflicts, governments-in-exile, armed resistance and battles for international legitimacy. Urging that opposition politicans including Ranariddh be allowed to return to Phnom Penh, and that Ranariddh loyalists end their guerrilla war in northern Cambodia, Mong Hay said: “There are mechanisms for resolving internal conflicts – it is called democracy, it is letting the people decide.”