What direction is civil society space taking in Cambodia?

Opposition vice president Kem Sokha shakes hands with Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Senate in July last year.
Opposition vice president Kem Sokha shakes hands with Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Senate in July last year. Heng Chivoan
(published on analysis and op-ed of the Phnom Penh Post, 21 April 2015)

As Cambodians return from celebrating the New Year, new threats to democracy and fundamental freedoms seem to be in the air.

Despite the repeated promises from the government to engage in significant reforms, including more cooperation with civil society, the latest statements and actions suggest the opposite. The recent adoption of the election laws seems to confirm a well-known pattern: crucial pieces of legislation are passed without meaningful public consultations.

Interestingly, this time the executive announced its intention to adopt the laws while its delegation in Geneva was engaging in a dialogue with the UN Human Rights Committee on the adherence of Cambodia to the provisions of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights. It does not come as a surprise that in its concluding observations the committee then urged the government to ensure transparency in the drafting process and facilitate public dialogue.

This is in fact not the first time that the government had used these methods to adopt important laws. It is worth recalling that the three laws on the judiciary, which are to regulate one of the three fundamental powers of the state, were adopted with no constructive dialogue with civil society and while the opposition was boycotting the parliament. Those laws have proved not to ensure the independence of the judiciary and must be amended to that scope.

Now the two main parties have come to a compromise, and an apparent culture of dialogue has taken the place before held by confrontation. This development needs to be applauded as long as it involves open and constructive dialogue within political parties and with other stakeholders. Unsurprisingly, Cambodia ranked very low in the World Justice Project (WJP) Open Government Index 2015.

The intention recently expressed by Prime Minister Hun Sen and by other senior lawmakers to adopt a highly controversial Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO) without any further public consultation is particularly worrying. According to unconfirmed information, the 2011 draft has been substantially changed, but no copy has been made public, with the clear intention of excluding civil society from the law-making debate. Despite how no real comment can be provided on a draft that is either four years old or a secret, it is especially alarming that civil society has not been consulted since 2011. This is a law that would severely affect NGOs’ ability to work and to carry out their role in society.

According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “civil society space is the place civil society actors occupy within society; the environment and framework in which civil society operates; and the relationships among civil society actors, the State, private sector and the general public”. What direction is civil society space taking in Cambodia? Are we moving forwards or backwards? Over the years, the space for public participation has undeniably improved, but much remains unachieved. A vibrant civil society is at the foundation of any democracy; therefore the space for civil society to operate should be protected and not threatened.

Freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly, and the right to participate in public affairs, are human rights ensured in the Cambodian Constitution and in international treaties that Cambodia has acceded. Those fundamental rights enable on one hand people to engage in the progress of their country and on the other states to move towards democracy. At present a political environment that values and encourages civic contribution is much needed in Cambodia. A real democracy requires transparency, public consultations and a strong commitment to uphold human rights.

It is high time for all political parties in Cambodia to work together to ensure such an environment and to cooperate with civil society, starting from holding consultations on the draft LANGO.

Chak Sopheap is the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

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Turning 30: My Thirtieth Birthday Celebration  

I got a dream when I turned ten: I wanted to be a doctor. It was just imagination but I wanted to be a famous doctor in Cambodia and if possible in the world to cure poor people. As I am a left-handed person, I wished that I could use this left hand to cure people effectively.

Then my dream changed. When I turned twenty I started an internship with a civil society organization. This was the pathway that totally changed my vision. Ten years later, I am obsessed with civil society work and social media platforms, and I have realized that this is who I want to be, not the doctor I had dreamt to become.

However, putting my life-path back to the intersection where I turned my back to a medical doctor career, probably other scenario could have happened. I might have been satisfied with myself or not, but I keep joking about that: probably those who know me now would have been my clients for medical service, or maybe we would have not met in this life-path.

At the end of this month, I will turn 30—an age when you could feel that you are getting old, but I would say the age when “I grow up.” My dream has not really changed. As quoted by Banyan Blog:

As a child, she once dreamed of being a doctor, to serve the poor, but now her dream is to help create a freer, more open and just Cambodia.

I now have a wish to celebrate my 30th birthday: that you all join my cause to empower others to grow up. In 2014, I launched with the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) the pilot “Empowering Cloghers Project”. Through the microgrant support from the Global Voice Online we strengthened the online presence and influence of female university students from rural Cambodia by enabling them to become Cloghers– and to become active online. Cloghers are Cambodian bloggers – locally known as “cloggers” – who are women, thus “cloghers”. My wish is to empower 30 more cloghers and I would like to see my friends to be active citizens and to join my cause by contributing to support this idea. We need to collect roughly US$3000.

I will start collecting my birthday gift from now until 30th March when I will really turn 30. Gift me with three numbered—which could be $3 or $30 or more—for “My Thirtieth Birthday Celebration”!

Your gift will be properly collected, recorded and managed with transparency and accountability. Click here to gift me.

Alternatively, please contact me via chaksopheap@gmail.com for any inquiry about this cause or way of donation.

 

Posted in Appreciation, Clogher, Gender, Personal | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Cambodia needs to prioritise access to information law

(published on analysis and op-ed of the Phnom Penh Post, 18 February 2015)
Supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange wearing Guy Fawkes masks

Supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, wearing Guy Fawkes masks, stand outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2012. AFP

Cambodia needs to prioritise access to information law

Over the past few weeks, the government has repeatedly asserted its intention to introduce a state secrets law in Cambodia. In a country that has not yet adopted a solid access to information law and has showed no hesitancy in restricting freedom of expression, such declarations are a cause for serious concern. In fact, the public right of access to information is not only the other side to freedom of expression, it is the backbone of democracy.

In recent years, a significant number of states around the world have engaged in public debate over the balance between the right to information and the need for state secrets, subsequently adopting or revising classification regimes and related laws. Finding the right balance remains though a delicate exercise that requires attentive reflection and large consultations. In 2013, for example, Japan passed a state secrecy law that sparked widespread criticism and concerns as it includes serious threats to whistleblowers and even journalists reporting on areas the government defines as secrets.

Similarly, China has been internationally condemned for broadly classifying information as secrets and using its own state-secrets law to jail dissidents.

In 2013, 17 organisations and five academic centres, in consultation with four special rapporteurs on freedom of expression and the media from the UN, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Organization of American States (OAS), and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), as well as with the UN special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, issued a set of principles on national security and the right to information, the so-called Tshwane Principles. This authoritative document restated that national security and the public’s right to know do not go necessarily in the opposite direction.

This is certainly true, and the Cambodian government has repeatedly asserted that the draft law on state secrets would address national security issues, such as the leaking of secret information of the police, military and government. However, a state secrets law could help conceal government wrongdoings and further limit the right to information if clear standards or procedures for classifying or otherwise withholding information on security grounds are not properly established. Last year’s comments from Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan go in that direction. He made the suggestion that people were not supposed to have a copy of the leaked cybercrime draft law and that they could be in trouble.

Vagueness of the criteria used for classifying information as a “state secret” and a lack of transparency in the drafting process, which would not be new to the Cambodian government practice, are not an option when it comes to the right to information and in turn to democracy. In fact, no state secrets law should be passed until after an access to information law is adopted.

The timing of these declarations on a state secrets law is also very disappointing as national discussion and active campaigning for an access to information law has been on-going for more than a decade. Since 2001, NGOs working in the country have pushed for greater transparency and education of democratic rights that would in turn enhance the exercise of the right to freedom of expression.

A solid draft law and an amended version were submitted to the National Assembly in 2010 and 2012, respectively. Both were rejected.

Despite these efforts to increase access to information, government officials in Cambodia often simply choose not to implement the few provisions related to freedom of information that currently exist in domestic law, for example under the 1995 Law on the Press or the 2005 Archives Law. This, paired with a politically subservient judiciary and restrictive police force, has prevented Cambodia from developing a strong freedom of information framework and from exercising full freedom of expression.

Democracy requires an informed citizenship and accountable leadership. For these goals to be realised, the public’s right to know must be protected and positively enforced through legislation and the active implementation of freedom of information principles.

Certain information may legitimately be secret on grounds of national security or protection of other overriding interests. However, abuses of power occur when a government is not open and accountable. The lack of access to sufficient and accurate information severely hinders the ability of journalists and civil society to provide information and encourage debate. Increasing public access to information through the adoption of a comprehensive access to information law will allow Cambodians to exercise their democratic right to participate in decision-making processes and to freedom of expression. It will also equip them with the necessary information to make informed decisions about issues that affect them, in turn increasing the transparency and accountability of those individuals and bodies that wield power in Cambodia.

A secrecy law should not be adopted until the right of access to information is solidly guaranteed in the country. When a stronger legislative infrastructure on the right to information has been developed in Cambodia, national security could be considered as a legitimate while specific exception to that right.

Chak Sopheap is the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

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