Standing with civil society in Cambodia

People protest at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court earlier this month after members of civil society were detained and charged.

People protest at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court earlier this month after members of civil society were detained and charged. Pha Lina
(published on analysis and op-ed of the Phnom Penh Post, 11 May 2016)

Nearly 25 years ago, history was made with the signing of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, which aimed to put an end to years of devastating conflict in Cambodia. The agreements were thought to signal a new era for a peaceful Cambodia, laying the foundations for building a Cambodia that was just and democratic, and which respected human rights and the rule of law.

Two years later, under the guidance of the United Nations, Cambodia’s first constitutionally elected government assumed power. During the elections, polls were open for six days, yet 42 per cent of the voters cast their votes on the first day – almost 2.1 million Cambodians.

Against all odds – torrential rain, and a campaign of threats and violence from the remnants of the Khmer Rouge and other armed groups – people were hopeful about the prospect of peace and democracy in their country. Almost 90 per cent of the population voted.

But did we achieve the democracy we were promised? If we ever did have it, it is undoubtedly now under severe threat given the recent attacks on civil society.

A cornerstone of any democracy and a crucial factor in ensuring respect for human rights is the fostering of a strong, independent civil society. This was something that was specifically guaranteed by both the government and international partners in the Paris Peace Agreements.

As part of the agreements, it was stated that Cambodia will endeavour to “ensure respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cambodia” and “support the right of all Cambodian citizens to undertake activities that would promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms”.

Moreover, as part of this historic agreement, the eighteen countries and the UN who are also signatories, promised “to promote and encourage respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cambodia as embodied in the relevant international instruments in order, in particular, to prevent the recurrence of human rights abuses”.

Since the Paris Peace Agreements were signed, human rights organisations have undertaken vital work to promote and protect the human rights of all Cambodians, while providing assistance to countless victims of rights abuses. In the past, Cambodia has even been praised for having a relatively vibrant civil society, showing how far we have come.

However, current events threaten the progress made in this area, and give cause to reflect on the vital role of a free civil society in Cambodia as well as on whether sufficient actions have been taken by those who promised to help uphold it. Recent weeks have seen the rapid deterioration of the already fragile state of affairs for Cambodian human rights defenders, independent political commentators and activists.

Too many are being judicially harassed and denied their rights to liberty, freedom of expression and a fair trial. Young people are being jailed for harmless statements posted on social media platforms. Citizens peacefully defending their land and natural resources against exploitation are being arrested, threatened and even killed, while the perpetrators of such violence enjoy impunity.

Laws – such as the NGO Law and Trade Union Law – are being introduced that can too easily be wilfully misinterpreted and applied to curtail freedoms, and groups’ rights to assemble and protest against such developments are being further curtailed.

All Cambodians want to see reforms that will improve their livelihoods, security and wellbeing, and if the government is to achieve its goals of a better Cambodia, independent civil society should be seen a key partner, not an enemy. Our leaders should recall the spirit of the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991 and the democratic principles enshrined in our constitution, and collaborate with civil society.

The responsibility upon the international community to ensure that human rights are respected in Cambodia also remains to this day. After the 2013 elections, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia at the time acknowledged this continuing responsibility.

Now, it should be reiterated in light of the recent visit of the person currently assuming this role, Rhona Smith. Smith reported concern at the deteriorating situation she witnessed during her visit, describing the Cambodia she saw as being on the brink of a “dangerous tipping point”.

Of course, Cambodia has not returned to the horrors of its past, and hopefully it never will. But that cannot be a benchmark for success now. Today’s Cambodia does not compare well with the picture of a free and democratic country envisioned in the Paris Peace Agreements.

And if that vision is to be realised, greater responsibility is required from the government in safeguarding the freedoms set out in our Constitution and international instruments. In particular, the government needs to recognise the important role of a vibrant civil society in Cambodia and it would be prudent for the authorities to work with us towards our common goal – the good of all Cambodians.

Cambodia is long overdue the basic tenets of a liberal democracy – unrestricted civil society, free and fair elections, rule of law, and an independent judiciary.

Global civil society, international actors and all those who signed the Paris Peace Agreements also need to take action, to assist Cambodian civil society and the government to work together to ensure the Kingdom steps back from the brink and continues on a path towards a better future.

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

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

Time for Cambodian women to take the lead

(published on analysis and op-ed of the Phnom Penh Post, 08 March 2016)

Huge strides have been made for women’s progress in Cambodia over the last couple of decades. Women’s presence is strongly felt within the workforce and more women have begun to climb the career ladder and assume higher-level positions than ever before.

Today we see women dominating in one of Cambodia’s largest industries – the garment sector – and women taking up office jobs, becoming entrepreneurs, obtaining positions within local government and even becoming parliamentarians.

Women’s participation in grassroots-level activism is also strongly felt. Among the throngs of demonstrators that routinely take to the streets in Cambodia to demand their rights in the face of widespread violations, growing numbers of women are joining the ranks.

Women activists and human rights defenders are organising, mobilising, and leading advocacy initiatives throughout the country. From Phnom Penh to the remotest of provinces, women are leading communities to demand their rights. The overwhelming female presence in the struggle for the recognitions of human rights in Cambodia is undeniable.

International Women’s Day (IWD), observed across the globe today, celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women. In Cambodia – a country where historically women have been discouraged from participating in social and political actions – there is much to celebrate. Women are increasingly playing an important role in community-level activism, showing just how far Cambodia has moved forward in terms of women’s empowerment.

This year, one initiative that is taking place to celebrate IWD is a campaign to #PledgeforParity, which calls on individuals to pledge to take a concrete step in terms of purposeful action to help achieve gender parity.

While women’s progress in Cambodia is certainly laudable, women continue to be discriminated against and underrepresented in key decision-making roles in public and political life. Parity, unfortunately, remains out of reach.

For example, the International Federation of Journalists has found that although high numbers of women have begun to join the traditionally male-dominated media, they remain significantly underrepresented in key decision-making roles.

Similarly, in Cambodia’s garment sector, while women make up 86 per cent of the workforce, a survey conducted by the Solidarity Center has found the majority of union leaders to be male.

The lack of female leadership within the industry means that pressing gender-related issues affecting the majority of the workforce – for example, maternity rights, poor sanitation and the gender wage gap – are largely overlooked within the labour movement.

Of great concern is the lack of women’s representation in politics. The last National Assembly elections, held in July 2013, saw the first decrease in women’s representation in parliament in 20 years and a failure to meet the Millennium Development Goal of 30 per cent female representation in parliament by 2015.

The situation has only worsened since. Only recently the National Assembly has come under fire for a lack of commitment to ensuring women’s representation among lawmakers, as the number of female parliamentarians decreased to below 20 per cent in 2015.

Indeed, the glaring absence of women in influential roles in Cambodia is largely due to a lack of understanding of – and commitment to – gender mainstreaming. This is problematic considering prevailing traditional attitudes that discriminate against women.

Revealing the less than favourable attitude towards female leaders, Ath Thorn, president of the garment industry’s largest independent union – the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union – has remarked that its members are reluctant to elect women leaders as they are viewed as less capable.

It’s not just within leadership where Cambodia is failing its women. Gender-based violence remains a key concern in Cambodia. A report released by the World Health Organization late last year revealed domestic abuse of women to be a pressing concern in Cambodia, with over a fifth of women suffering physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner. Equally as alarming, a UN survey in 2013 found that one in five Cambodian men admitted to having raped a woman.

To give credit where credit is due, the royal government of Cambodia has taken decisive and positive steps regarding gender empowerment. The government has a specific national gender equality strategy – the National Action Plan to Prevent Violence Against Women 2014-2018 – which focuses on women’s economic empowerment and preventing gender-based violence.

In addition, a number of civil society organisations continue to work tirelessly to bridge the gender gap by supporting and empowering women.

Such efforts have been the driving force behind women’s progress in the Kingdom. Yet, much work remains to be done. It’s not just about fulfilling quotas. We need to begin focusing on the quality of women’s participation, as well as the quantity.

In light of the upcoming elections, it is vital that concrete measures are taken to ensure women’s participation in decision-making roles in both public and political spheres. It’s time for Cambodian women to take up their places as leaders.

On the long road ahead in the fight for gender equality, I pledge to continue to challenge gender bias, and inspire and empower women in Cambodia to become leaders in their fields. I call upon all Cambodians to join me, and #PledgeforParity, to ensure a more inclusive and equal Cambodia.

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

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

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.

Posted in Human Rights and Peace Campaign | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment