Sopheap Chak

Riding the wave of change in Cambodia

Page 3 of 57

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.

When Justice is a Prisoner

Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association president Vorn Pov

Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association president Vorn Pov speaks from inside a police truck as it enters Phnom Penh Municipal Court last month. Heng Chivoan
Fri, 6 June 2014

In January, the government engaged in a violent crackdown on growing labour and opposition protests in and around Phnom Penh, resulting in the death of five people. Military forces and police also beat up protesters, and arrested 23 of them over the course of two days. Those arrested, including four prominent human rights defenders, are now known as “the 23”. The violence and arbitrary nature of their arrests, their five-month detention and the recent court verdicts finding them guilty illustrate the intolerance of the government towards anyone threatening its economic interests or its legitimacy.

Last Friday, judges announced the 23 had all been found guilty of acts of violence and related charges, and sentenced them to between one and four and a half years’ imprisonment. However, all sentences were suspended and the 23 were released the same day, in part due to growing pressure from international brands, international unions and international and local civil society. Brands such as H&M, Gap and Levi Strauss are important buyers for Cambodian factories and represent crucial economic interests, with the garment industry’s exports exceeding $4 billion in the first nine months of 2013 alone.

While it was heart-warming to see the mothers, fathers, wives and friends of the 23 cry with relief after learning that their loved ones would be set free and reunited with their families, their release should not overshadow the core issue that these verdicts represent and that is symptomatic of Cambodia’s judiciary: a lack of independence used by the government as a tool to suppress opposition voices.

The conviction comes after an obviously biased trial. Violations of the 23’s right to a fair trial were seen at every stage of the process, from the impunity with which security forces killed and injured protesters in January to the very courtroom in which a judge took on the role of prosecutor. During the five days of trials, no incriminatory evidence was presented and the defendants’ rights to a fair trial were repeatedly violated. Judges turned into prosecutors, blatantly assuming the guilt of defendants, qualifying protesters as “gangsters”, preventing defence lawyers from presenting evidence and censoring defendants’ testimonies. In light of the conduct of the hearing, there was no doubt regarding the political nature of the case: the 23 were in jail to set an example and to dissuade workers from protesting against an industry from which government officials and members of the elite greatly benefit.

The only thing the 23 could be found guilty of is having exercised their freedom of assembly, guaranteed by the constitution. Today they are free, but they remain guilty in the eyes of the court. The verdict illustrates that despite a lack of evidence, the judiciary could not openly dismiss the arrests made by security forces and instead handed down suspended sentences. The suspended sentences also now represent a constant threat hanging over their heads, while the five months they spent in prison stand as a reminder to anyone who protests of the risks they are taking. The happiness of seeing them free should not divert Cambodians or the international community from the reality of this verdict.

It is no secret that the judiciary in Cambodia is not independent and is partial to the interests of the elite and the government. It is not a tool for justice but rather a tool to suppress dissident voices. The government’s control of the judiciary will be further reinforced, as only a few weeks ahead of the verdict, the National Assembly adopted three laws “reforming” the judiciary.

The laws, which had been gathering dust for years, were rushed through a one-party assembly and adopted after only two days, despite repeated calls for consultation by the UN and civil society. Leaked drafts of the laws revealed that they will not reform the judiciary in a manner that would strengthen its independence as we had all hoped. Instead, they will reinforce the influence of the executive branch over the judicial and grant direct powers to the Ministry of Justice over the judiciary to advance and promote judges and prosecutors, control expenses and discipline judges.

If the judiciary were truly independent, the security forces responsible for beating up and arbitrarily arresting the 23 would be investigated as well. However, while the 23 stood trial and were convicted, not one military or police officer has been investigated or even simply questioned about the violence in January. The 23 are now free, but justice remains prisoner to the political manipulations and intimidations of the ruling party.

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

What direction is civil society space taking in Cambodia?

Opposition vice president Kem Sokha shakes hands with Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Senate in July last year.
Opposition vice president Kem Sokha shakes hands with Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Senate in July last year. Heng Chivoan
(published on analysis and op-ed of the Phnom Penh Post, 21 April 2015)

As Cambodians return from celebrating the New Year, new threats to democracy and fundamental freedoms seem to be in the air.

Despite the repeated promises from the government to engage in significant reforms, including more cooperation with civil society, the latest statements and actions suggest the opposite. The recent adoption of the election laws seems to confirm a well-known pattern: crucial pieces of legislation are passed without meaningful public consultations.

Interestingly, this time the executive announced its intention to adopt the laws while its delegation in Geneva was engaging in a dialogue with the UN Human Rights Committee on the adherence of Cambodia to the provisions of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights. It does not come as a surprise that in its concluding observations the committee then urged the government to ensure transparency in the drafting process and facilitate public dialogue.

This is in fact not the first time that the government had used these methods to adopt important laws. It is worth recalling that the three laws on the judiciary, which are to regulate one of the three fundamental powers of the state, were adopted with no constructive dialogue with civil society and while the opposition was boycotting the parliament. Those laws have proved not to ensure the independence of the judiciary and must be amended to that scope.

Now the two main parties have come to a compromise, and an apparent culture of dialogue has taken the place before held by confrontation. This development needs to be applauded as long as it involves open and constructive dialogue within political parties and with other stakeholders. Unsurprisingly, Cambodia ranked very low in the World Justice Project (WJP) Open Government Index 2015.

The intention recently expressed by Prime Minister Hun Sen and by other senior lawmakers to adopt a highly controversial Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO) without any further public consultation is particularly worrying. According to unconfirmed information, the 2011 draft has been substantially changed, but no copy has been made public, with the clear intention of excluding civil society from the law-making debate. Despite how no real comment can be provided on a draft that is either four years old or a secret, it is especially alarming that civil society has not been consulted since 2011. This is a law that would severely affect NGOs’ ability to work and to carry out their role in society.

According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “civil society space is the place civil society actors occupy within society; the environment and framework in which civil society operates; and the relationships among civil society actors, the State, private sector and the general public”. What direction is civil society space taking in Cambodia? Are we moving forwards or backwards? Over the years, the space for public participation has undeniably improved, but much remains unachieved. A vibrant civil society is at the foundation of any democracy; therefore the space for civil society to operate should be protected and not threatened.

Freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly, and the right to participate in public affairs, are human rights ensured in the Cambodian Constitution and in international treaties that Cambodia has acceded. Those fundamental rights enable on one hand people to engage in the progress of their country and on the other states to move towards democracy. At present a political environment that values and encourages civic contribution is much needed in Cambodia. A real democracy requires transparency, public consultations and a strong commitment to uphold human rights.

It is high time for all political parties in Cambodia to work together to ensure such an environment and to cooperate with civil society, starting from holding consultations on the draft LANGO.

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

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