Sopheap Chak

Riding the wave of change in Cambodia

Category: Human Rights and Peace Campaign (page 1 of 10)

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.

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).

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.

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