Sopheap Chak

Riding the wave of change in Cambodia

Author: Sopheap Chak (page 1 of 28)

Cambodia must restore political dialogue and cooperation

Adhoc officials Ny Sokha (right) and Yi Soksan are escorted out of a police vehicle at the Supreme Court, where their appeal for bail was denied last month in Phnom Penh. Several political crises have escalated in recent weeks, causing many to question the Kingdom’s capacity to hold a free and fair election.

Adhoc officials Ny Sokha (right) and Yi Soksan are escorted out of a police vehicle at the Supreme Court, where their appeal for bail was denied last month in Phnom Penh. Several political crises have escalated in recent weeks, causing many to question the Kingdom’s capacity to hold a free and fair election. Hong Menea

(published on analysis and op-ed of the Phnom Penh Post, 23 March 2017)

It has become something of a cliché over the past 25 years to describe Cambodia as standing at “a turning point”. Although never, perhaps, has the choice of paths before us looked so stark. The next 18 months should see the celebration of two free, fair and peaceful democratic elections; yet many are deeply concerned that if the deterioration of the political situation continues, Cambodia instead risks sliding into instability, division and even violence.

The last year and a half has already seen political dialogue stall after an all too brief détente, as well as an increasing restriction of democratic space. Now the situation appears to have reached a critical point. With the commune elections less than three months away, there is still an opportunity to set a new course, but this window is narrowing every day.

A pluralist democracy, such as that enshrined in Cambodia’s Constitution, is defined by divergences of opinions among its citizens, its political parties and leaders, and even among the different branches of government. Yet despite these differences, all citizens are united by their shared interest in ensuring respect for the Constitution and in seeing their country succeed and its citizens flourish. It is in this spirit that I speak out today: to urge our leaders – from all political parties, as well as in the government, the judiciary and the legislature – to step back from further confrontation, to return to political dialogue and cooperation, and to make a renewed effort to find solutions to the current deadlock.

Cambodia’s young democracy is not without its flaws and weaknesses, even significant ones, and civil society should not and will not hesitate to speak out where it has fallen short. Undoubtedly, over the past 25 years Cambodia has seen progress in many areas, which should be welcomed: reduction of poverty, increased economic development and, most of all, sustained peace after decades of civil war.

These achievements should not be diminished or ignored, yet they are now being put at risk by events that undermine the very foundations on which sustainable progress must be built: the rule of law; the separation of powers; and an enabling environment for pluralist democracy.

The rule of law requires that those who exercise state power are restrained by law and that laws are applied to all persons equally without discrimination or favour. Laws, including the criminal law, must be applied consistently, transparently and fairly. Those suspected of violating the law should be held to account – including the powerful and the wealthy – and all persons, regardless of political opinion, should be guaranteed the protection of the law.

Political analysts have been a particular target of attempts to restrict and punish critical speech using the criminal law. Recent weeks have seen prominent commentators subject to threats, criminal charges, and even imprisonment. Civil society organisations have also been subject to threats of legal action as a result of the legitimate exercise of their right to freedom of expression.

The exercise of political and civil rights including the right to vote requires the free exchange of ideas about public life and political events. With two elections rapidly approaching, it is particularly important that political commentators, civil society and the press are able to fulfil this crucial role.

The weakness of the rule of law in Cambodia is exacerbated by the lack of a genuine separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, as required by Article 50 of the Constitution.

Criminal prosecutions and lengthy pre-trial detention have increasingly restricted critical voices. Human rights defenders such as Tep Vanny and the #FreeThe5KH detainees remain in prison as a result of their legitimate activism.

The judiciary has a constitutional and professional duty to act independently, applying the law in the best interests of justice and resisting all forms of external pressure. Other actors have a corresponding duty not to seek to influence the court system inappropriately.

More than any other single factor, enabling the development of a strong, independent court system that operates – and is seen to operate – impartially and professionally would significantly improve levels of trust in government and help create the conditions for renewed political dialogue and compromise.

Rhetoric that questions the motives of civil society and that characterises all those who engage in peaceful protest as criminals or revolutionaries is unproductive and unjustified. Dissent and peaceful protest are not crimes; they are essential mechanisms that allow people to express themselves and participate in public life.

The use of highly charged, militarised language contributes to an already tense atmosphere and only increases the risk of Cambodia sliding into instability and violence. Cambodia is lucky to have a strong and vibrant civil society: the presence of this independent voice can enhance the quality of policymaking, ensure all political parties are subject to scrutiny, and encourage the development of an engaged and well-informed electorate.

The campaign period for the commune elections is due to commence on May 20, with polling scheduled for June 4. Yet without an improvement in the political situation it is difficult to see how elections conducted in this climate can be considered free, fair and legitimate. Unfortunately, productive political dialogue has been rendered considerably more difficult by the recent adoption of amendments to the Law on Political Parties.

The enactment of these illiberal and dangerous provisions represents an unprecedented threat to the existence of 25 years of multiparty democracy in Cambodia, and risks isolating Cambodia internationally. Their application in practice would surely signal that we were already far gone down the darker of those two paths that now lie before us. Once this line was crossed, this is a choice that would prove extremely difficult to unmake.

It gives me no pleasure to make these grim observations about the current state of our country. Who wouldn’t be proud to see Cambodia respected as a state that lives up to its international obligations; that respects the rights of its citizens; that is only mentioned at the UN Human Rights Council to be praised as a paragon of progress and peace? Sadly, this day has not yet arrived.

Until it does, we will continue to work to realise the vision of a nonviolent Cambodia in which people enjoy their fundamental human rights, are treated equally, empowered to participate in democracy, and enjoy the benefits of Cambodia’s development.

To the extent that the authorities share and pursue these goals in good faith, we will happily work with them. While the responsibility for ensuring and protecting human rights lies with the state authorities, others also have a crucial role to play in ensuring the success of Cambodia’s liberal democracy. All branches of government, as well as all political parties, need to step back from confrontation and act to stop the escalation of political tensions; set aside past grievances and engage in genuine dialogue to find solutions to the current political deadlock; and take this opportunity to alter the dangerous trajectory Cambodia appears to be following. Such an effort will undoubtedly require political courage, as well as good faith and trust on all sides. Yet for those willing to think critically and with a cool head, the benefits to all sides of avoiding confrontation are indisputable; the risks of prolonged instability are equally clear.

Finally, all citizens should ensure they are informed voters, capable of critically assessing the promises of parties and holding politicians and state institutions to account. By remaining open-minded and resisting partisanship, the Cambodian people can help create the conditions for a return to dialogue. We must show compassion and refrain from hatred; courage to go out at election time and exercise our right to vote for whichever candidate we freely choose; and our commitment to seeing Cambodia become a peaceful and flourishing democracy.

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

Cambodia still fails to fulfil Paris Peace Agreements’ vision

A man holds a placard yesterday morning at the CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh to mark the 25th anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords.

A man holds a placard yesterday morning at the CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh to mark the 25th anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords. Heng Chivoan
(published on analysis and op-ed of the Phnom Penh Post, 24 October 2016)

 

Every year on October 23 we rightly celebrate the Paris Peace Agreements, which brought an end to decades of conflict and violence in Cambodia, with a public holiday. This year marked 25 years since the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements, and it is fitting that we use this milestone anniversary to reflect more critically on the successes and failures in the implementation of the Paris settlement.

This requires honest reflection not just on the progress and development Cambodia has seen since it emerged from civil war in 1991, but also on the areas where all parties continue to fall short in fulfilling the Agreements’ vision for a peaceful and democratic Cambodia, founded on respect for human rights.

Unfortunately, as the upcoming commune and national elections draw closer, recent months have seen an escalating crackdown on civil society and a troubling restriction of democratic space in Cambodia: legislation that restricts and punishes the exercise of fundamental freedoms, such as the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations, the Trade Union Law, and the new Telecommunications Law, to name but a few; a court system that lacks technical capacity and in which basic procedures are not followed, where the legal harassment and detention of human rights defenders and opposition lawmakers raise serious concerns about the judiciary’s ability to act with independence; and continued impunity for those who threaten, and even physically attack, members of civil society. It should go without saying that violations such as these are not the hallmarks of a “peaceful” society.

When the participants at the Paris peace conference sat down to negotiate a framework for Cambodia’s future, they had many choices as to the path Cambodia could follow. Yet in the end the path they selected, and the path laid out in the final versions of the Paris Peace Agreements that were signed by the late King Father, the then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk, as president of the Supreme National Council on behalf of Cambodia, was clear, and is explicitly stated in the text of the agreements: “Cambodia will follow a system of liberal democracy, on the basis of pluralism […] with a requirement that electoral procedures provide a full and fair opportunity to organise and participate in the electoral process.”

In addition to binding future Cambodian governments to implement this vision through the Constitution, the Paris Peace Agreements tasked the other 18 states that signed the agreements, as well as the UN, with the ongoing responsibility to promote and monitor their implementation.

The stated goal of the Paris Peace Agreements was to ensure that the Cambodian people enjoy the right to “determine their own political future”. Yet the drafters were foresighted enough to recognise that free and fair elections do not take place in a vacuum, that a functioning democracy requires respect for human rights, in particular the freedom to exchange ideas and engage in political discussion, to meet together and express shared opinions, including through peaceful protest, and to take part in political life without fear. For this reason, in the same section that set out in detail the arrangements for the first free and fair elections to be held in Cambodia, the Paris Peace Agreements guaranteed that “freedoms of speech, assembly and movement will be fully respected”.

Therefore, if liberal democracy was one pillar of the Paris settlement, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms was another. Human rights were placed at the heart of the Paris Peace Agreements, with Cambodia’s Constitution inextricably tied to the international human rights law framework.

Respect for human rights was seen as the best protection against any return to the horrors the Cambodian people had endured over the preceding decades, with the Agreements recognising that “Cambodia’s tragic recent history requires special measures to assure protection of human rights.” These special measures included the appointment of a Special Rapporteur with responsibility for monitoring the human rights situation in Cambodia. The current Special Rapporteur, Rhona Smith, has just completed her third visit to Cambodia, during which she emphasised that “respect for human rights is an integral part of ensuring lasting peace”.

Indeed, human rights were not merely seen as a response to Cambodia’s past, but also as the best guarantee for a stable, prosperous and peaceful future. Peace is not merely the absence of war. The drafters of the Paris Peace Agreements saw respect for human rights as an essential condition for the creation of a “positive peace”, which would allow real democracy to flourish.

For this reason, the agreements contained provisions in which Cambodia committed that all future governments would “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”. As such, while the civil war may have ended in 1993, the recent backslide in Cambodia’s human rights situation is, in itself, a continuing threat to peace.

With this troubling conclusion, I return to where I began. Implementation of the Paris Peace Agreements is far from complete: if the current crackdown continues – if fundamental freedoms continue to be restricted – then, as the Paris signatories recognised 25 years ago, it is simply not possible for elections to take place that can be considered free and fair. While Cambodia’s Constitution contains explicit guarantees for human rights, as required by the Paris Peace Agreements, these fundamental freedoms are assured more on paper than in practice.

The Cambodian government must fulfil its continuing obligations under the agreements – which mirror those in the Cambodian Constitution and international human rights law – to ensure respect for human rights in Cambodia, and protection for those who defend and promote those rights.

The other 18 states that signed the Paris Peace Agreements must also live up to the binding commitments they made to promote human rights in Cambodia and take action in case of rights violations. Whether through existing international mechanisms, including those special procedures established for Cambodia in the agreements, or through their everyday bilateral diplomatic and economic relations, the international community, not forgetting international civil society, has a crucial role to play in raising awareness and bringing pressure to bear, to ensure Cambodia complies with its obligations to promote and protect human rights and democracy.

While we are marking the passing of a quarter of a century since the Paris Peace Agreements were drafted, I believe they remain as relevant as ever, and the vision they contain just as inspiring. The challenge and responsibility of implementing the Paris Peace Agreements did not end with the successful maintenance of a ceasefire, nor with the adoption of Cambodia’s Constitution, nor even with the holding of Cambodia’s first full and fair elections and the departure of the UN transitional authority.

Similarly, the obligations of the signatories to the agreements – of Cambodia and of the other states that committed to “promote and encourage respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cambodia” – did not end in 1993. If that vision is to become reality, and if the next 25 years of implementation of the Paris Peace Agreements are to be marked by a greater respect for human rights and democracy than the first, there is an urgent need for renewed commitment, action, and political courage from all parties.

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

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).

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