Will 2015 be a year of change for Cambodia’s land rights crisis?

(published on analysis and op-ed of the Phnom Penh Post, 30 December 2014)

Boeung Kak Lake activist Nget Khun

Boeung Kak Lake activist Nget Khun, calls to community members from a window at Phnom Penh Municipal Court last month after she was detained by authorities.Vireak Mai

 

Earlier this month, in Prey Sar prison on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, I sat and talked with Tep Vanny, Song Srey Leap, Kong Chantha and Nget Khun, four inspirational activists from the city’s Boeung Kak lake community. They were jailed in early November after protesting against the now infamous 2007 real estate deal which saw the lake filled with sand and thousands of people forcibly evicted.

They looked pale and tired, but spoke with quiet dignity of their determination to seek justice for the loss of their land. In today’s Cambodia, they are not alone.

Steady economic growth and a large influx of aid since the end of civil war in the early 1990s have brought significant change to the country. According to World Bank estimates, Cambodia achieved the UN Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty by 2009, and Phnom Penh is now dotted with a growing number of sleek new apartment buildings, shopping malls and fashionable coffee shops.

However, as the country’s violent past recedes, Cambodia is in the grip of a volatile new conflict over land and natural resources. Policies pursuing economic liberalisation, export expansion and foreign investment have led to rising prices and an insatiable demand for land, leading to frequent clashes between the interests of local communities and politically connected big business. With large swathes of the country leased for commercial exploitation through economic land concessions, insecurity of tenure due to a widespread lack of formal land titles and weak rule of law have facilitated a wave of land grabs and forced evictions, sometimes accompanied by shocking levels of violence.

The scale of the problem can seem overwhelming, but despite the dangers, brave men and women across Cambodia are standing up to challenge violations of their land rights. Often, they are met with harassment and attacks. Within 36 hours of the arrest of seven Boeung Kak lake community activists on November 10, including those I met with, all had been detained, interviewed by a prosecutor, charged with obstructing traffic, tried, convicted and sentenced to a year in jail and issued a $500 fine, the maximum permitted under the law. A further three women and a monk faced similar treatment the following day, detained while protesting the arrest of their fellow activists and hastily convicted of obstructing public officials.

However, when complaints are lodged against powerful business interests attempting to forcibly acquire land, the justice system is not so nimble. In 2005, a dispute arose between the family of Ly Srea Kheng from Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kork district and a company owned by Khun Sear, a business associate of the head of the Senate President’s Bodyguard Unit. They have endured a campaign of threats and attacks by security guards hired by the company, including having a bag of venomous cobras thrown into their house. Despite several complaints filed before the courts, no action has been taken against the perpetrators. By contrast, following complaints from Khun Sear, police arrested Kheng on the morning of November 18 without showing a warrant or even allowing him time to get properly dressed. His 23-year-old daughter Ly Seav Minh was arrested later the same day. That evening, a company representative contacted Kheng’s son to negotiate, suggesting an abuse of the judicial process to force the family to accept the company’s terms. Kheng was bailed on December 5, but his daughter remains in detention.

Such harsh treatment of vulnerable people embroiled in land disputes does nothing to resolve the underlying problems, and can only exacerbate tensions among affected communities. As the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) has previously documented, one reason for the large number of disputes is a lack of adequate resolution mechanisms. Few people are even aware of those that do exist, which in any case have proved largely ineffective. Despite the many legal protections found in Cambodia’s Constitution, national and international law, illegal land grabs continue.

While institutional and judicial reform is certainly necessary, what is truly lacking is the political will to protect land rights in practice. Hun Sen’s “Heroic Samdech Techo Volunteer Youth” land-titling campaign, aimed at strengthening security of tenure through the provision of formal land titles, met with tentative initial praise, but proved highly problematic in execution and failed to assess disputed land. The government is currently developing a white paper on land policy and a new law on environmental impact assessments, initiatives that to its credit have involved consultations with civil society, but whether their concerns will be addressed remains to be seen.

In the absence of decisive action on the part of the government, local communities and civil society are coming up with innovative strategies to challenge land rights violations. After years of campaigning, activists from Boeung Kak lake welcomed Singaporean firm HLH’s recent decision to withdraw from the development for “commercial reasons”. Elsewhere, in a landmark case of transnational human rights litigation, villagers from Koh Kong have brought claims against UK sugar giant Tate and Lyle in the UK courts with support from the Community Legal Education Center. The villagers say that they were violently evicted from their land by armed military police to make way for sugar plantations, which the company subsequently sourced from.

While these noble efforts are to be lauded, the primary responsibility for dealing with insecurity of tenure and ensuring the peaceful resolution of disputes remains with the government. CCHR is calling for the release of all land activists detained simply for protesting violations of their human rights. In 2014, communities caught up in Cambodia’s land rights crisis stood up with bravery and resolve to demand change. I only hope that in 2015, the government will finally heed their calls.

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

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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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