UK-based NGO Global Witness today welcomed the Cambodian government's announcement that it had commissioned an investigation into the cases of high-level corruption, illegal logging, attempted murder and kidnapping detailed in its 'Cambodia's Family Trees' report.
The announcement by Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith, follows an earlier decision by the government to ban the report and a threat by Prime Minister Hun Sen's brother to "break the heads" of any Global Witness staff who visit Cambodia.
"Amongst the childish responses of some individuals, and the totally unacceptable bully-boy threats of the Prime Minister’s brother, the news of an investigation comes as a positive development," said Global Witness Director Simon Taylor, "Our report was always intended to facilitate the investigation and prosecution of those elite family members, senior officials and generals responsible for illegal logging and associated organised crime. If the government is now serious about ensuring that this happens, then that deserves to be applauded."
While the government's announcement is encouraging, questions remain about the scope of the investigation proposed and the suitability of the organisation charged with heading it - Swiss auditing firm SGS. SGS previously worked as the government's independent monitor of forest law enforcement in Cambodia between late 2003 and early 2005. The company's steadfast refusal to acknowledge the corruption underpinning the illegal logging industry drew widespread criticism, however.
SGS previously made several visits to the Prey Long Forest profiled in 'Cambodia's Family Trees', but failed to report the overwhelming evidence of massive illegal logging by relatives of Hun Sen, who had imposed a reign of terror - extending to attempted shootings - over the local population.
"We are ready to support an investigation in any way we can, however we remain to be convinced that SGS is up to the job. In Cambodia their brand of 'see no evil' monitoring has proved devastatingly ineffectual. Investigating a well-connected and violent timber mafia requires something far more robust.", said Simon Taylor. "We must not forget that the facts set out in our report concern very serious crimes. As such, the government must ensure that there is a full judicial and police investigation into these issues, and that any such investigation must also be seen to be effective. A whitewash would be completely unacceptable."
"We also urge ministers to remedy the reputational damage they have inflicted on the government by overturning the unlawful ban on distributing the 'Cambodia's Family Trees' report without further delay," added Taylor:
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(1) Global Witness exposes the corrupt exploitation of natural resources and international trade systems, to drive campaigns that end impunity, resource-linked conflict, and human rights and environmental abuses. Global Witness was co-nominated for the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for its leading work on ‘conflict diamonds' and awarded the Gleitsman Foundation prize for international activism in 2005. For more information on Cambodia, see other Global Witness reports and briefing documents, available athttp://www.globalwitness.org/pages/en/cambodia.html
(2) The announcement by Khieu Kanharith of an investigation into the activities detailed in the 'Cambodia's Family Trees' report was reported by Xinhua in the Chinese People's Daily newspaper, 7 June 2007.
(3) References to the threat made against Global Witness staff by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s brother are drawn from an article by Douglas Gillison and Yun Samean, published in the Cambodia Daily on June 5 2007. In it, the Prime Minister’s brother and Kompong Cham provincial governor Hun Neng is quoted as saying: "If they (Global Witness staff) come to Cambodia, I will hit them until their heads are broken."
(4) The Prey Long forest landscape in northern Cambodia is the largest contiguous area of dry evergreen and semi-evergreen forest left standing in mainland Southeast Asia. Situated to the west of the Mekong River, it covers an area of approximately 5250 km2. Prey Long’s importance is highlighted in a number of studies of forest management in Cambodia, not least the 2006 World Bank Inspection Panel report (http://siteresources.worldbank.org/EXTINSPECTIONPANEL/Resources/CAMBODIAFINAL.pdf) and the 2004 Cambodia Independent Forest Sector Review (http://www.cambodia-forest-sector.net/docs/mainreport.pdf). It has been included in a tentative list of sites proposed for UNESCO World Heritage status. The Cambodian government is currently developing plans to clear tens of thousands of hectares of Prey Long to make way for plantations.