Human rights in Cambodia

People march along a road in Kampong Speu’s Samrong Tong district earlier this week in the lead up to International Human Rights Day.

People march along a road in Kampong Speu’s Samrong Tong district earlier this week in the lead up to International Human Rights Day. LICADHO
Thu, 10 December 2015

Amid the high-profile human rights violations and chaos that characterise the current political climate in Cambodia, it may seem somewhat bizarre that we observe a national holiday in honour of International Human Rights Day.

The 67th commemoration of the adoption of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, however, provides a fitting opportunity to reflect on the past, present and, most importantly, the future of human rights in the Kingdom.

Four weeks ago, an arrest warrant was issued for opposition leader Sam Rainsy. This was the highest-profile event in a year that has been marked by multiple restrictions on human rights and fundamental freedoms.

This warrant, if executed, would see Sam Rainsy join Senator Hong Sok Hour and 11 other opposition activists in prison, jailed for their opposition to the ruling regime.

In each of these cases, the arrests, convictions and warrants were politically motivated and executed by a judiciary lacking in independence.

The issuing of the warrant for Sam Rainsy follows the savage beating of two opposition lawmakers outside the National Assembly in October – an incident widely reported to have been orchestrated by the ruling party.

Aside from the political opposition, the royal government of Cambodia has additionally targeted a variety of other groups that it views as opposed to its interests; namely, non-governmental organisations, trade unions, human rights defenders and ordinary people who dare to speak out against government malpractice.

Recently adopted legislation, such as the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations (LANGO), represents a clear attempt to limit freedom of expression and association. In the background, Cambodia’s countless victims of land grabbing struggle to make their voices heard amid the pervasive political instability.

In this oppressive context, one could be forgiven for believing that the human rights movement in Cambodia has floundered.

This year’s International Human Rights Day is devoted to the launch of a yearlong campaign commemorating 50 years since the adoption of the two most important human rights treaties of all: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

While the incidents highlighted above primarily relate to violations of civil and political rights, it is equally important to consider Cambodia’s progress in the realm of economic and social rights.

Asian leaders often claim that the human rights movement unjustly focuses on civil and political rights, while ignoring progress for economic and social rights, such as access to adequate housing, health care and education.

Cambodia’s leaders, however, would struggle to succeed with such an argument. GDP continues to surge and skyscrapers and shopping malls now crowd the Phnom Penh skyline.

Yet these developments cast a long shadow, leaving the vast majority of the Cambodian people – who gain little or no benefit from Cambodian-style crony capitalism – in the dark.

According to the latest figures from the World Bank, 32 per cent (or approximately 0.5 million) of Cambodian children under 5 years old are stunted due to malnutrition, and 82 per cent (12.2 million people) of Cambodia’s people do not have access to piped water supply.

Nevertheless, any serious assessment of Cambodia’s human rights situation must also recognise the significant achievements of the Cambodian human rights movement since the end of the civil war in 1991.

The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), along with partner human rights organisations, has spent many years working to empower citizens to advocate for their rights in every corner of the country. Community outreach, human rights training, and public forums conducted by Cambodia’s human rights organisations have had a deep and lasting impact on the population, as well as the sociopolitical landscape of the Kingdom.

For a country at Cambodia’s stage in development, it is remarkable how many Cambodians are aware of their human rights – and how to stand up for them. The democratising effect of this work cannot be overstated. As a result, the Cambodian people today are not likely to allow their rights to be violated without mounting a response.

The impact can be seen from the protests that regularly fill the streets of Phnom Penh, to the community solidarity in the face of land grabbing in Cambodia’s remote provincial villages; everywhere, Cambodian people are standing up for their rights in the face of injustice.

Typically, Phnom Penh City Hall officials have refused to allow NGOs to conduct a peaceful march through the city for this year’s International Human Rights Day – citing traffic concerns and public security as justifications.

The government, it appears, is increasingly nervous about large gatherings of people in the capital – as also evidenced by the recent cancellation of the Water Festival. Cambodia has one of the youngest populations in the world.

Our young people understand their rights, and they are willing to stand up for them – often at significant personal risk. The government is well aware of this, and feels threatened by this people power. But the government surely also recognises that it can’t continue to repress dissent forever.

The tide of empowered youth is simply too strong, and within the youth lies the hope for a brighter future – one based on equality and respect for human rights.

Right across Cambodia today, determined communities – many of them victims of the government’s attitude towards human rights and development – are holding events to mark International Human Rights Day.

These activists and communities are supported by a vibrant civil society, encompassing many determined and well-organised human rights advocates.

The impact of the Cambodian human rights movement’s work to empower the younger generation will be felt for many years to come.

It would take much, much more than a cancelled march and an NGO law to undo this work. From the perspective of those who wish to curtail human rights, the “damage” has already been done.

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

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Imperfect pact: remembering the Paris Peace Agreement

Content image - Phnom Penh Post

From left: Khmer Rouge factions leaders Im Chuun Lin, Cambodian Premier Hun Sen, Dith Munty, Cambodian Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Ieng Mouly and Khieu Samphan applaud after signing the treaty that ended decades of civil war in Cambodia on October 23, 1991, in Paris. AFP

Fri, 23 October 2015

On this day 24 years ago, 19 governments came together to sign the Paris Peace Agreements, which finally provided a comprehensive political settlement to end the “tragic conflict and continuing bloodshed” that tore Cambodia apart for decades.

Since 1970, Cambodia was respectively ravaged by an intensive bombing campaign by foreign militaries, a coup d’état, the inconceivable horror of the Khmer Rouge regime, and a bloody civil war. As some of the worst victims of the brutality of Cold War realpolitick, it is truly a testament to the spirit of the Cambodian people that the nation has been able to move on from such a history.

Today, it is appropriate for all of us to reflect and appreciate our relative fortune, compared with the extreme suffering of previous generations. There are now no bombs devastating our countryside, no forced labour camps imprisoning our people, and no fresh mass graves filled with our best and brightest.

Yes, peace has come to Cambodia – but today’s peace is an imperfect, fragile, peace-for-some. While political leaders use this anniversary to loudly declare their achievements in bringing peace to Cambodia, we must remember that widespread and ongoing violations of human rights, the stifling of democratic space, and crackdowns on dissenting voices have become dark features of peacetime Cambodia.

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 peace”, or rather peace building.

Today, we celebrate peace. Yet, we should ask, what peace is there for the family of Mao Sok Chan, the innocent bystander killed by security forces with impunity in September 2013? What peace is there for Khem Sophath, the 16-year old boy disappeared during a protest in January 2014, or the countless other victims of impunity in Cambodia?

What peace is there for the hundreds of thousands of Cambodians who find themselves landless and displaced, their homes and farmland granted as land concessions to the rich and well-connected, many of whom have robbed Cambodia of its natural resources for ruthless profit? Undoubtedly, there is peace-for-some in Cambodia: the well connected tycoons, political leaders, and their cronies live in quite perfect peace, without fear of arbitrary imprisonment, judicial harassment, and violence.

For those who dare to speak out, on the other hand – the activists, environmentalists, human rights defenders, trade unionists, land community leaders, and ordinary people expressing critical opinions online – there is no genuine peace.

With the commune and national elections coming up in 2017 and 2018, respectively, a systematic campaign to clamp down on dissent in all its forms is under way in Cambodia (as described in a recent publication by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights titledCambodia: Democracy Under Threat).

Oppressive laws that curtail human rights and fundamental freedoms, such as the recently passed Law on Non-Governmental Organizations and Associations (LANGO), the draft Trade Union Law, and the proposed Cybercrime Law, are all examples of this trend, which has accellerated in recent months. At the same time, there has been a sharp increase in politically motivated arrests and convictions on spurious grounds.

Equally concerning is the threat that this fragile “peace” may not last. Recently, Prime Minister Hun Sen has used every opportunity to publicly warn the people of Cambodia of “civil war”, should his party fail to win the next national election.

These warnings have been backed up by statements by senior military figures regarding their loyalty to the ruling party, and their commitment to suppressing any so-called “colour revolution”. Of course, these statements are orchestrated to strike fear into the hearts of a population that has been so deeply scarred by conflict.

Nonetheless, they cannot be perceived as empty threats, as the ruling elite of Cambodia have shown on many occasions that they are quite capable of significant violence in the name of securing power.

Peace, democracy and human rights are inextricably linked and mutually dependent. In a society where human rights are not respected, peace cannot exist, because true peace requires the space for peaceful expression, peaceful assembly, peaceful association and the peaceful enjoyment of all human rights.

If the current leaders of this country wish to be remembered as peacemakers, they must halt their campaign to curtail human rights, and allow democracy to flourish in Cambodia.

Chak Sopheap is the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and a peace studies graduate from the International University of Japan.

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Curtailing civil society in the Kingdom

Activists and members of civil society march through the streets of Phnom Penh on International Labour Day in 2011

Activists and members of civil society march through the streets of Phnom Penh on International Labour Day in 2011 to protest against the NGO law. LICADHO
(published on analysis and op-ed of the Phnom Penh Post, 15 June 2015)

Several laws currently under consideration are threatening to bring about the end of free civil society in Cambodia. Several others have recently been passed, radically reforming our judiciary and rules governing electoral campaigning in a manner that centralises power in the executive branch and erodes the checks and balances that a healthy democracy requires.

The recently passed Law on Election of Members of the National Assembly also prohibits civil society organisations from making statements or conducting any other activities deemed to be supportive of political parties during election periods, which some fear could be used to stop civil society from asking questions, criticising candidates or seeking to better inform voters. Others are looming – some shelved, some threatening to pass – focusing on cybercrime, trade unions, land use and other issues related to the free exercise of our human rights.

The draft law on associations and NGOs (LANGO) is the government’s most recent attempt to push through legislation that has the potential to undermine human rights without genuine and broad public consultations. The last draft of the LANGO was seen in 2011, and was criticised for giving the government overly broad powers to shut down civil society organisations in a way that many feared was open to abuse.

The law lay dormant until May when Prime Minister Hun Sen declared that it would be passed that month. As the government has refused to release the new draft, speculation on its content and potential impact has grown steadily among civil society organisations, donors and the diplomatic community. However, now the Council of Ministers has reportedly approved a new text, and a leaked version has been widely distributed, a version that confirms many observers’ fears that the law would be worse than the one proposed in 2011.

The law in its current form makes no distinction between community-based organisations and other kinds of associations, and includes mandatory registration requirements for all NGOs and associations working in the country, prohibiting any activity by unregistered groups. These provisions would enable the authorities to restrict the legitimate activities of a wide range of organisations, including local community and grassroots groups and social movements.

Equally concerning is the vagueness of some of the language contained in the text. The government can refuse to register organisations that “jeopardise peace, stability and public order or harm the national security, national unity, culture, and traditions of the Cambodian national society”, ambiguous terms that are clearly open to broad interpretation and potential political manipulation.

Furthermore, the law states that foreign associations and foreign and domestic NGOs must remain “neutral toward all political parties”, and introduces harsh sanctions for failing to comply with the law.

All in all, the law will seriously undermine the rights to freedom of association and expression, impair citizens’ constitutional right to participate actively in the political life of the nation and undermine civil society’s legitimate role in holding public authorities to account.

In recent weeks, Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition minority leader Sam Rainsy have publicly embraced what they call a political “culture of dialogue”. But so far, sadly, that dialogue has only taken place between the two of them and their high-level staff, and has not been extended to include the public or civil society.

At the same time, a number of local and international organisations have come together to kick off a campaign urging the government to STOP AND CONSULT on the LANGO and other critical laws likely to have a negative impact on human rights.

As part of these efforts, I joined a delegation of Cambodian civil society members in Washington to call on the US and other governments to urge the government of Cambodia to be more transparent, inclusive and consultative. As I walked the halls of Congress in Washington from one meeting to another, I gained energy from the respect and empathy I found. But each of those steps also highlighted for me what could soon be a fantasy: walking the halls of parliament in my own country to advocate for change.

Members of civil society in Cambodia must have explicit permission to even set foot in our National Assembly. Although members of the government have said they support the idea of consultations, we have yet to see the proof of it. Instead, as our STOP AND CONSULT campaign gained momentum, an official warned that those who criticise the government, even with something as simple as a tweet, would be punished.

Cambodia’s democracy was hard won. After a civil war and a devastating genocide, my country now has a constitution that guarantees our rights. But we need more than words on paper. A lack of transparency and inclusive dialogue around law making is threatening to close the space for those who work every day to provide services to their fellow citizens and make our country better. This is why we are calling on the government to draft a law to ensure that the legislative process takes into consideration the views of multiple stakeholders including civil society, and most importantly, the public. We’re calling on the international community to stand with us.

Now back in Cambodia, I still hold out hope that when tomorrow comes, citizens like me will still be able to speak and serve our fellow citizens freely. Our future depends on it.

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

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