Political judiciary versus an independent judiciary in Cambodia

(published on analysis and op-ed of the Phnom Penh Post, 21 November 2014)

Monks, activists and supporters take part in a protest at Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison

Monks, activists and supporters take part in a protest at Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison earlier this week to demand the release of 17 imprisoned activists, monks and opposition members. Vireak Mai

Political judiciary versus an independent judiciary in Cambodia

Fri, 21 November 2014

It is a surprise to no one that the judiciary in Cambodia is not an independent and impartial body. However, the recent wave of politically motivated arrests and speedy trials cannot pass unnoticed.

Over the past week, more than 15 people, including Meach Sovannara and Tep Narin of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), land rights activists and monks have been arrested, tried and convicted in a series of hurried and unfair trials. This crackdown on dissent is particularly timely for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), as it is in the midst of negotiations with the opposition party, the CNRP, on reforming the National Election Committee (NEC).

The government itself implicitly admitted using the judiciary as a political tool when, on November 15, Interior Ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak stated that if the opposition was willing to collaborate more on the NEC, Meach Sovannara would not face a long jail term.

If Cambodia were truly democratic, there would be no place for such statements, and the law would protect citizens from abuses of power rather than being used as a tool to harass those expressing dissent.

The application of law should not be negotiable, no matter whose interests are at stake. However, Cambodians are again witnessing the opposite, and remain victims of judicial double standards: impunity for members of the security forces and government supporters is the rule, while activists and political opponents continue to be arrested, summarily tried, promptly convicted and imprisoned in most cases.

No one can forget the case of Chhuk Bundith, former Bavet city governor, who confessed to shooting three female factory workers protesting at Svay Rieng Special Economic Zone on February 20, 2012. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison for causing unintentional injuries by shooting, but remains free. Unfortunately, he is not the only one.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Ly Srea Kheng and his daughter Ly Seav Minh were arbitrarily arrested and rapidly prosecuted in Phnom Penh, with blatant violations of basic fair-trial rights. They have been involved in a land dispute with the Khun Sear Import Export Company. However, while Kheng and his family have attempted in vain to register their land with the authorities, the complaints against Kheng have been rapidly expedited.

What we have witnessed over the past few days is just another case of judicial harassment and double standards.

Cambodia’s courts have slowly improved over the past few years, but they remain substantially vulnerable to political influence and pressure from the executive. Until Cambodia’s judiciary undergoes appropriate reforms, including the much-needed amendments of the three controversial laws relating to the judiciary adopted in July, the people of Cambodia will not be able to fully enjoy their fundamental human rights.

The Cambodian government must ensure judicial independence and equality before the law, and end impunity. This has been repeatedly stated by the United Nations special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, as he most recently reiterated in a statement on Tuesday.

In a country that professes to be a democracy and uphold the rule of law, judicial double standards are no longer tolerable.

Chak Sopheap is the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, a nonpolitical, independent, nongovernmental organisation that works to promote and protect democracy and respect for human rights throughout Cambodia.

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An affront to human rights

An affront to human rights

(published on analysis and op-ed of the Phnom Penh Post, 1st October 2014)

Protesters gather in front of the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh on Friday

Protesters gather in front of the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh on Friday before the signing of a controversial refugee deal between the countries. Heng Chivoan
Wed, 1 October 2014

As recently as January, Australia denounced Cambodia for its poor human rights record at a United Nations human rights hearing. Now, just eight months later, Australia has turned a blind eye to this record by signing a refugee deal with Cambodia that raises serious human rights concerns.

As the world faces an unprecedented number of refugees, Australia is dodging its responsibility to provide a safe and dignified resettlement process despite its high capacity to do so. Instead, it has entered into an agreement to “offload” refugees arriving in Australia to Cambodia, a country plagued by human rights abuses. Australia will provide Cambodia an additional $35 million in aid in exchange for the deal, but it cannot be guaranteed that this money will reach those that need it most.

While both Australia and Cambodia are signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the rights of refugees in both countries are regularly violated. Australia has become increasingly irresponsible regarding its treatment of refugees. Mandatory detention, offshore processing and a refusal to settle those found to be genuine refugees have demonstrated Canberra’s policy of deterrence. The deal with Cambodia fits perfectly within this policy and contradicts the spirit of the Refugee Convention.

Cambodia also has a poor record regarding the treatment of refugees. In December 2009, Cambodia breached a fundamental element of the Refugee Convention, non-refoulement – a principle which requires signatories to not return or expel refugees to the persecuting state – by returning 20 Muslim Uighurs fleeing ethnic violence to China. Others who migrate here, including Khmer Krom, ethnic Khmer from South Vietnam entitled to citizenship, struggle to access their rights in practice. This demonstrates the problems of the immigration process and Cambodia’s failure to support those seeking asylum.

Aside from violations against refugees and breaches of the Refugee Convention, Cambodia is facing countless other human rights issues. Impunity is rampant, freedom of expression is threatened, minorities are discriminated against and land rights are ignored. Corruption is endemic and politically motivated attacks are common. This is compounded by the fact that 20.5 per cent of the population lives in poverty, and many others earn only fractionally more, according to Where Have All the Poor Gone?, a 2013 World Bank report. Cambodia is clearly an unacceptable place for a wealthy country to offload refugees, particularly as it cannot guarantee the rights of arriving refugees.

The “pilot program” by which Cambodia will initially accept only four to five refugees signifies that the country is aware of its limited capacity. It is not clear who will monitor this pilot program or assess whether the situation for refugees is appropriate. It is clear that if the program is to be monitored by Cambodia and/or Australia alone, it will be subject to biased assessment and lack international scrutiny.

Recent media reports suggest that refugees will be forced to relocate outside of Phnom Penh once they have mastered basic Khmer. They will receive 12 months of guaranteed assistance once relocated, but it is likely that this will be inadequate considering the trauma that many refugees have endured and the time required to find meaningful employment. This is despite the Refugee Convention stipulating that refugees have “the right to choose their place of residence and to move freely within its territory”.

While 87 per cent of the world’s refugees are already hosted by developing countries, Australia is circumventing its international obligations. Refugees arriving on Australian shores have been given a choice to either resettle in Cambodia or to remain on Nauru for a further five years. And it has been made clear that they will never resettle in Australia. This is having a devastating impact on already traumatised refugees; five refugees on Nauru have sewn their mouths closed and two have attempted suicide since receiving the news. For those who are resettled in Cambodia, the series of violations is set to continue.

Australia and Cambodia both have a duty to respect their obligations, not only under the Refugee Convention but other human rights conventions, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The deal will in all likelihood result in breaches of these international human rights standards and should be subject to public scrutiny. The rights and wellbeing of the refugees involved should be the prime consideration for both countries.

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

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‘A force more powerful’ book gift for 2014 International Peace Day

The theme of this year International Peace Day is “the Right of Peoples to Peace”, which is to mark the 30th Anniversary of the General Assembly Declaration on the Right of Peoples to Peace which means to recognise the promotion of peace is necessary for full enjoyment of all human rights.

Peace should not be described as merely the absence of war or violence, which is ‘negative peace.’ It should also include communal harmony, socioeconomic cooperation and equal political representation in government for all citizens. These, along with good governance, which respects the rights of the people, constitute the positive side of peace, or rather peace building.

Even when we say ‘absence of violence,’ we must first examine what violence is. While war is direct visible violence, there is also a kind of ‘structural violence,’ the result of bad and harmful state policies that have long-term negative effects on people, such as hunger and poverty, which harm and put peoples’ lives at risk.

Reflecting to this theme and the definition above, one could not deny that people’s rights to peace has been continually violated in many countries and in many forms.

We all could join together to recall the respect to those who has sacrificed their life and effort for the peace promotion and we all have the the power and moral obligation to contribute to the world peace.

I therefore would like to make awareness contribution by gifting such a powerful book I have received in my attendance at the International Visitor Leadership Program to my fellow in Cambodia who are interested in the issue.

A force more powerful

To be the winner for a 554 page book titled “A force more powerful: A century of nonviolent conflict” written by Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall, what you could do is to answer the following (in comment section of this blog):

There is a known nonviolent activism history in Cambodia. Agree or disagree? Please elaborate.

Deadline: Answer now until mid-night of 21st September 2014, International Peace Day.

Please note that there is no an absolute answer to this, as it would depend on one’s opinion. However I will choose an opinion that is matter and favor to my subjection.

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