Human rights, lest we forget

July 2014 Human Rights Spotlight: Human rights, lest we forget
(published on analysis and op-ed of the Phnom Penh Post, 29 July 2014)
Mam Sonando (centre), the owner of the independent Beehive radio station and a prominent government critic
Mam Sonando (centre), the owner of the independent Beehive radio station and a prominent government critic, and other activists run as military police officers disperse a demonstration in Phnom Penh in January. AFP

 

The end of the boycott of the National Assembly by the Cambodia National Rescue Party is a welcome development. The fact that both parties were able to finally come to the table and settle their disagreements should be welcomed. However, we cannot become complacent just because Cambodia’s political crisis has been signed away with a promise of reform of the National Election Commission.

Electoral reform is important in any country where election irregularities have been noted, and it is crucial to Cambodia’s democratic development – no one can deny that. But electoral reform alone will not solve Cambodia’s other crisis: the human rights crisis.

Over the past year, the human rights situation has continued to deteriorate, with people’s fundamental rights and freedoms being slowly stripped away. We must ensure that we keep this at the forefront and that we push both political parties to work towards greater protection of human rights.

So as we welcome the end of the political deadlock, we cannot forget that there still has been no satisfactory investigation into why so many people were killed and injured by security forces during protests and why victims of police violence are being denied their right to justice.

We cannot forget that journalists continue to be targeted for reporting on controversial stories on a daily basis; that defamation suits are repeatedly used to silence those who dare to speak out; and that online freedom is increasingly at risk.

We cannot forget that across Cambodia, women, the LGBT community and minorities are discriminated against in their communities and by the authorities; that the shockingly high rate of violence against women continues to keep them from reaching their potential.

We cannot forget that Cambodia’s judiciary continues to bend to the Cambodian People’s Party’s political interests, which may be exacerbated by the three recently passed laws on judicial reform; that all too often, courts of law are used to protect the wealthy and powerful, and all too rarely to render justice.

We cannot forget that garment factory workers are still not earning enough to be able to live in dignity; that employers continue to take advantage of poorly worded labour and union laws and of weak enforcement mechanisms to maintain deplorable working conditions and violate union rights.

We cannot forget that thousands of Cambodians have been evicted from their land to make way for commercial and development projects that they will most likely not benefit from; that those who have been evicted are still waiting for real compensation and solutions.

Forgetting that this human rights crisis is very much alive and well will only enable those who benefit from it to continue violating human rights with impunity. It will continue to hold Cambodia’s development back, as the majority of the population continues to see little or even no improvements in their living conditions or in their ability to benefit from Cambodia’s economic growth.

None of this means that we should forget electoral reform. But we should remember that electoral reform is not just about replacing the NEC’s members – it’s also about reforming the way that political parties campaign, so that elections become about policies as opposed to rhetoric. It’s also about eradicating corruption to ensure that voter lists cannot be altered to suit political interests and that legitimate voters are not turned away at the polls.

As we reflect on the political deal that has just been made, we must remember that there is still so much to be done to ensure that Cambodia becomes a place where the protection of human rights becomes a reality and not just a dream, and that democracy finally takes hold. We must pressure both political parties to work together towards ending this human rights crisis. We must ensure that they work with civil society to ensure that new laws, new policies and new institutions are designed to safeguard human rights and not to erode them further. Only when our legal framework is strengthened and the rule of law made a national priority will we see an improvement.

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

Posted in Enviromnment, Gender, Human Rights and Peace Campaign, Social Politics | Leave a comment

Boeng Kak Investor Dismisses Ethics in Name of Business

(This is a letter to editor, published on July 1st, 2014. “Reprinted with the permission of The CAMBODIA DAILY.”)

On June 25, the private firm buying 1.35 hectares in Phnom Penh’s contentious Boeng Kak lake neighborhood claimed, incredibly, to have no knowledge of the site’s internationally recognized land dispute (“Firm Buying Boeng Kak Land Claims No Knowledge of Evictions,” June 26).

D’Lotus Development, a subsidiary of the Singapore-based firm HLH Group, is buying the land from Shukaku Inc., which in 2007 won a 99-year lease to 133 hectares of the Boeng Kak lake area in central Phnom Penh. About 3,000 families have now been forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for the firm’s development project.

HLH Group’s CEO and executive deputy chairman, Johnny Ong Bee Haut, who denied knowledge of the land dispute in an interview, has been working in Cambodia for the past six years. It is extremely hard to imagine a scenario in which Mr. Ong would have been able to remain ignorant of such a high profile and controversial land dispute.

The international response to the case of Boeng Kak Lake has been remarkable. In 2010, the World Bank stated it would suspend funding to Cambodia until the Boeng Kak conflict had been resolved. The numerous high-profile protests that have followed the evictions, which have been violently suppressed by the authorities, have been widely reported by local and international media.

The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights state that in all contexts, business enterprises should “comply with all applicable laws and respect internationally recognized human rights, wherever they operate.”

Shukaku has clearly violated residents’ land rights by acquiring land while residents claimed possession rights, filling the lake with sand, and causing serious flooding and damage to many homes.

It is clear that if HLH Group completes the purchase, it would be complicit with the contraventions of Cambodian law and the long list of rights violations that Shukaku has committed. Even if by some miracle Mr. Ong had managed to remain ignorant of the dispute during his six years in Cambodia, he and the rest of HLH Group had a responsibility to have known before agreeing to purchase the land. It is clear that HLH Group is dismissing ethics in the name of business.

Chak Sopheap, executive director, Cambodian Center for Human Rights

Posted in Bussiness & Economy, Enviromnment, Human Rights and Peace Campaign | Leave a comment

Things impress me in Sweden

One thing that many of us may aware about Sweden is the Nobel Prize—known as the legacy of Sweden’s Alfred Nobel (1833–1896). However, after my second trip, I have more to tell than the impression I made during my first trip and I hope this will reflect to Cambodian context where we could learn.

Educating children is a key

There are things similar to Japan where school children are taught to interact and expose to outside community aside their school boundary. During my visit to Royal Palace—when the changing of the guard pirate were to show off—a middle age man shouted to the crowd where I was standing behind: Could you please move a bit and let kids stay in front? I then saw a group of roughly 20 kids walked into the crowd. Some tourists were not happy to let so many kids occupied their space, while many were smiling to see so many kids in queue and of course they were willing to let kids in as this is morally right thing to do. Kids were actively observed and discussing among each other on the performance and I believe this would be later discussed in their class of their visit. I was impressed at how schoolteachers were spending time with their students and such field-trip mission would let these young kids exposed to real world besides their daily theoretical learning in classroom.

Kids were standing to see pirate of changing guard at Stockholm's Royal Palace (Photo by the Author)

Kids were standing to see pirate of changing guard at Stockholm’s Royal Palace (Photo by the Author)

While I was impressed with such act, I reflected this to my own experience. I could only visit the Cambodia’s royal palace for the first time only when I was in grade 12 (the final year in high school degree) with other few friends as a study reward, meaning not everyone was entitled to such visit led by a teacher. Having said so, it means that such field visit was very limited in school agenda or let’s not hopes to be initiated by schoolteachers who were struggling to earn extra aside their official teaching time to support their low salary.

Despite of this, similar approach to have such field trip for students are seen in some private schools in Cambodia which is good expose but this shall be initiated in public schools too so that every kids would has access and learn from such extra activities and this requires sufficient funding in education program as well as the teacher’s salary.

Another component that I learned from a study visit is the fact that Sweden is already advanced at openness and compulsory to include “sexual rights” as part of their educational curriculum for kids from age 13 to 19 years old. Such educational platform allows students to openly learn the issue around sexual rights but this was believed a step forward to raise kids awareness to different gender identity and sexual orientation so that this would tackle on the discrimination against sexuality. What I gathered from the communication I had with few Cambodians who were also impressed at this openness approach with kids on sexuality in Sweden was that they would be still hesitate, although they well understood the topic, to accept such thing adopted in Cambodia if to reflect from parents’ point of view. They suggested for those including I myself who were trying to get their opinion on matter to wait until these people have our own kids. I could understand their concern with tradition we had been used to and while Cambodia’s education system is not that advance compared to Sweden, but Sweden also experienced similar tradition’s clashes until they could have a smooth transformation. It thus requires us to learn and see what and where we could start from it.

Openness and Engagement with Civil Society

I should not surprised at how openness and closed engagement the government as well as parliamentarians with civil society in Sweden has, yet coming from a country where position does matter, I could not help to impressed with this and think out loud how it be better for Cambodia to learn such positive manner. The city hall did not fail to welcome delegates—mostly from civil society organizations—for the second time of my visit in Sweden where my former visit in the role as blogger. The representative of city hall of Stockholm proudly welcomed guest and introduced the spirit of engagement with civil society regardless political or social background.

Cambodian delegates were greeting by the Deputy Governor of Stockholm's City Hall (Photo by the Author)

Cambodian delegates were greeting by the Deputy Governor of Stockholm’s City Hall (Photo by the Author)

The representative also brought us to visit the important building of the hall and explained the rationales of specific architecture. One thing that impressed me is the city hall’s Council Chamber —a venue where meeting of Stockholm’s city council will be conducted. The design was full of openness idea behind as shown with a painting on the cell of the building with sky, star, sun and noon to represent that the meeting of the member will be conducted in an open space where public can see their conduct and any discussion shall be made public as they are now practicing with live streaming and opening access to media and public observation.

Chamber of city hall (Photo by the Author)

Chamber of city hall (Photo by the Author)

We were also welcomed by representative of parliamentary at the parliament in which I am sure such practice would be rare in Cambodia.

I acknowledge these are the positive side of Sweden that I had exposed during two visits (I spent roughly a week per visit), so this is not to conclude the whole picture of Sweden as any place shall has its shortcoming and to the extend when the local resident would have more to say about their own country.

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