Categories
Human Rights and Peace Campaign

Cambodia scrapping Human Rights Day is a worrying sign of the times

This year is the first time since 1993 that International Human Rights Day will not be a public holiday in Cambodia, with its symbolic shunning a sign of the wider deterioration of human rights and democracy in the Kingdom says CCHR executive director Chak Sopheap

CHAK SOPHEAP
DECEMBER 10, 2020
Published on the Southeast Asia Globe

 

Human rights activists carry banners during a march in Phnom Penh on 10 December 2010. This year is the first time since 1993 that Cambodia has not marked Human Rights Day as a national holiday. Photo: EPA/Mak Remissa

Each year, 10 December marks International Human Rights Day, a global celebration of the day on which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948 – the revolutionary document underpinning the international human rights framework and originally enshrining the fundamental human rights owed to everyone.

The importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the other core human rights conventions, is reflected in the fact that these documents hold constitutional status in the Kingdom of Cambodia, by virtue of Article 31 of the Constitution of Cambodia.

This year, for the first time since 1993, 10 December is not a public holiday in Cambodia following the Royal Government of Cambodia’s announcement that Human Rights Day would be dropped from Cambodia’s list of public holidays. This move was reflective of their attitude towards human rights, which has continued to decline throughout 2020 with a series of severe blows further tarnishing Cambodia’s human rights record. In particular, 2020 has been characterised by a deeply damaging crackdown on human rights defenders and activists who work tirelessly to make human rights a reality for all in Cambodia.

While the primary responsibility for promoting and protecting human rights lies with States, many have proven to be unwilling or unable to carry out this duty. Cambodia’s ratification of international human rights instruments and their incorporation into the domestic legal framework was a promising start, however, human rights require much more than endorsement on paper.

Despite their constitutional status, the government has failed to translate human rights into practice through concrete actions, leaving human rights protections severely lacking. In this context, human rights defenders – meaning anyone who undertakes peaceful activities for the promotion and protection of human rights – are crucial actors for positive, sustainable human rights progress.

In Cambodia, the deteriorating human rights situation and the continued curtailment of civic space have created both a greater need for outspoken human rights defenders and, regrettably, an increasingly hostile and dangerous environment for them to work in. The government’s disregard for human rights, and its tendency to equate criticism with opposition, have resulted in dissenting voices being wrongly perceived as threats that must be neutralised. 2020 has proven to be a particularly hazardous year for human rights defenders and activists alike, as the renewed crackdown waged by the government against anyone challenging the status quo saw dozens targeted, including union leaders, journalists, environmentalists, youth activists, peaceful demonstrators and civil society members.

In a bid to silence critics and stifle public participation, the government resorted to judicial harassment and intimidation, and the year has been rhythmed by summons, arrests and convictions of peaceful activists and human rights defenders. The crime of ‘incitement to commit a felony’, Article 495 of the Cambodian Criminal Code, has been utilised perpetually against human rights defenders and activists throughout 2020, with the vast majority of criminal proceedings resting on this problematic offence. Article 495 is a broad and imprecise provision, permitting it to be used liberally, beyond reasonable and objective determinations of ‘incitement’, in an arbitrary application of the law.

In addition to facing judicial harassment and imprisonment infringing their rights to liberty and security, multiple human rights defenders have also experienced physical assault. Attacks by unknown assailants, as well as frequent excessive use of force by authorities during protests, have led to many human rights defenders and activists requiring medical attention. Women human rights defenders and female protesters have been particularly targeted with distressing reports and images of their mistreatment surfacing in recent months.

Notably, 2020 has also been marked by a surge of youth activism, with many young Cambodians bearing the brunt of the government’s crackdown. Demonstrations led or attended by Cambodian youths were violently dispersed by the authorities, and youth organisations were closely monitored, their activities hampered and their members targeted.

This attempt at suffocating youth mobilisation has been a regional trend in 2020. Other countries in the region have experienced a parallel surge in youth activism, and a corresponding crackdown on youth activists. The youth-led movements calling for reform in Hong Kong and Thailand elicited a heavy-handed response from the respective authorities, and students in Myanmar have been jailed for organising rallies and campaigns denouncing human rights abuses in the country. These repressive measures in Cambodia and abroad seem to expose governments’ fears that, if left unchecked, the younger generations could truly be catalysts for change, a first step towards the galvanisation of others, with both the potential and the ability to enact wide-reaching reforms.

Youth mobilisation and the younger generations’ refusal to be complacent in the face of injustices should be lauded, rather than restricted. Cambodia’s growing and increasingly informed youth are promising agents for reform and their activism represents a glimmer of hope for a brighter future for human rights. While the government has recognised youth as a core resource for the country’s development, the potential of younger generations continues to be fettered through infringements on their fundamental freedoms. The government’s empowerment of young people has been disappointingly selective, focusing on their economic contribution but stifling their public participation, when instead the government should be emancipating the youth in all domains, public and private.

2020 also saw the RGC use its legislative power to further curtail Cambodian civic space. The problematic Law on the Management of the Nation in State of Emergency, promulgated in April, grants the RGC extensive, unfettered powers to restrict fundamental freedoms during a state of emergency, raising concerns that it could be used to arbitrarily target dissenting voices.

Marchers mark World Human Rights Day in 2004 in Phnom Penh. Photo: Heng Sinith/EPA

Considering the government’s track record for targeting critics, it is reasonable to anticipate that these latest legislative developments would be utilised to silence activists and human rights defenders

The government is also progressing with other repressive legislative developments, draft versions of which have been leaked this year, including the draft the Law on Public Order, the draft Sub-Decree on the Establishment of the National Internet Gateway, and the draft Law on Cybercrime.

Each of these draft legislative norms impedes on the exercise of fundamental freedoms and uses vague and broad language that risks arbitrary enforcement, restricting rights beyond permissible limitations prescribed in international human rights law. Considering the government’s track record for using the domestic legal framework to target government critics, it is reasonable to anticipate that, if enacted, these latest legislative developments would be utilised to further silence activists and human rights defenders.

The government’s perception of human rights defenders and activists as troublemakers to be silenced and incapacitated is incredibly damaging, as it deters other activists and the public at large from exercising their fundamental freedoms, which is counterproductive for a just, democratic society. Further, it stands in the way of the realisation of human rights in Cambodia, at the expense of the whole population.

The government should be reminded that human rights defenders act as a last line of defence, attempting to protect the human rights that governments have failed to uphold. The claims and issues they raise should therefore be given full attention and be adequately addressed, rather than dismissed because they impede the ruling elite’s agenda or require governmental introspection. Human rights defenders are engines towards a better future, a future with heightened respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and it is high time that the Cambodian government recognises them as such.

On this Human Rights Day, we refuse to let its somewhat symbolic removal from the list of Cambodian public holidays stand in the way of celebrating the frontline defenders working tirelessly to ensure that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted 72 years ago today, is translated into action.

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

Categories
Human Rights and Peace Campaign

‘An all-time low’: Cambodia’s search for peace and democracy continues

Cambodia has undergone a shrinking of democratic space and human rights in recent years, with this gathering pace again with the arrest of Rong Chhun and other activists in recent months. This Democracy Day, CCHR’s Chak Sopheap marks the occasion by outlining where the Kingdom is going wrong

CHAK SOPHEAP
SEPTEMBER 15, 2020

Published on the Southeast Asia Globe

Supporters of Rong Chhun, the President of Cambodian Trade Union Confederation, hold placards during a protest at the Appeals Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 26 August. EPA-EFE/Kith Serey

Chak Sopheap is the executive director at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. She posts daily about democracy and human rights in Cambodia on her Twitter account.

In September, the world celebrates International Day of Democracy and International Day of Peace on the 15th and the 21st respectively. While the first is meant to encourage governments to strengthen and consolidate democracy, the second is devoted to reinforcing the ideals of peace. Democracy and peace are mutually inclusive: one cannot genuinely be achieved without the other and both are crucial for a country to flourish and prosper.

In the eyes of many, the Kingdom of Cambodia enjoys peace. However, true peace must be felt and cannot simply be declared: beyond the absence of war, democracy, as well as strong institutions and respect for human rights, are key components of a peaceful state. This year, while celebrating these international days, we shall question whether either democracy or peace has been meaningfully achieved in Cambodia.

After decades of unrest and conflict, Cambodia received its first real shot at peace when the Paris Peace Agreements were signed in October 1991, offering a comprehensive political settlement aimed at putting an end to years of conflict. While some violations of the Agreements were deplored in the years following their signature, overall, the Agreements are largely perceived as succeeding in ending years of conflict in Cambodia, bringing about relative peace through the absence of war. Cambodian citizens are no longer living with the fear of being killed in conflict and unceremoniously buried in mass graves, and bombs are no longer heard shattering entire villages at a time.

Peace, however, must be understood more broadly than the absence of war. States that have left periods of conflict and war behind can only boast of having achieved what is known as “negative peace”. To reach a just and all-encompassing peace, measures and policies aimed at achieving “positive peace” must be worked on once war has ended. Social justice and equality, respect for human rights, as well as harmonious social relations and good governance, are all necessary to attain positive peace and create a favorable environment for human potential to thrive.

In the context of Cambodia, negative peace has undoubtedly been achieved, as evidenced by the stability the country has enjoyed and profited from for many years. However, in addition to putting an end to conflict, the Agreements also sought to facilitate the Cambodian people’s move towards reconciliation and self-determination, for a just and democratic Cambodia to emerge, paving the road towards positive peace. The drafters of the Agreements therefore insisted on the inclusion of democratic values and required respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, all of which figure like golden threads throughout the Agreements.

Sadly, these words, then loaded with hopeful expectations and promises, seem to exist only on paper today, as the human rights and political situation in Cambodia faces an all-time low.

The Royal Government of Cambodia’s repeated and systemic attacks on democracy constitute perhaps the most severe obstacle to Cambodia achieving positive peace. Over the last few years, the RGC’s sustained crackdown on dissenting and opposing voices has generated worldwide criticism.

The preamble of the Constitution of Cambodia states that Cambodia shall be “an ‘Island of Peace’ based on a liberal multi-party democratic system”. Despite this democratic safeguard, recent developments have consolidated power to the ruling political party, leaving no room for legitimate opposition or constructive democratic debating. In 2017, following an amendment to the Law on Political Parties, the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was dissolved by the Supreme Court and the seats it had won in the 2017 local elections were reallocated to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. Cambodia thus became a de facto one-party state, leaving local supporters disenfranchised and unrepresented, in what was called “the death of democracy” in Cambodia.

In a bid to weaken dissent and suppress freedoms, the RGC amended its national legal framework ahead of the 2018 national elections. The Constitution was amended, following a rushed, secretive and one-sided amendment process, to introduce new vaguely-worded restrictions on fundamental freedoms. Article 42 now permits the government to take action against Cambodian citizens who do not place the “national interest” first. A similar amendment was made specifically for political parties. The Cambodia Criminal Code was also amended in early 2018, adding the offense of “insulting the King” in a further blow to freedom of expression. In addition to the enactment of impeding legislation, the lead-up to the 2018 elections saw the freedom of the press severely restricted to prevent unfavorable reporting. These systematic actions have hindered political plurality, illustrated a disregard for democratic checks and balances, and discouraged any expressions of dissent, acting as a firm barrier to Cambodia achieving peace.

Since then, the systematic targeting of dissenting voices has shown no sign of abating, with intimidation tactics, judicial harassment, threats and violence routinely inflicted upon former-political opposition members, activists, human rights defenders, and those critical of the government. The RGC’s intolerance of dissent has also taken the form of a severe curtailment of Khmer citizens’ fundamental freedoms.

In December 2019, the Prime Minister declared that maintaining peace and stability was paramount, ranking peace as more important than democracy and human rights

‘Freedom Park shall have been named Restricted Park so we all know that we could not peacefully assemble there.’ Photo: Chak Sopheap Twitter

Freedom of expression remains illusory, as critical voices have been arrested for sharing their views. For example, Mr. Rong Chhun, a prominent union leader and member of the Cambodia Watchdog Council, was arrested on 31 July for a Facebook post regarding the Cambodia – Vietnam border. During the protests that erupted following his arbitrary arrest, multiple youth activists were arrested, a move that not only violates their freedom of peaceful assembly but intimidates and deters activists and the public at large from exercising their freedoms.

Furthermore, over the last few weeks alone, many peaceful protests were met with interference and violence by heavy-handed authorities using unnecessary force, in brazen violation of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. Notably the majority of this state violence has been inflicted against women. This crackdown on fundamental freedoms paints a rather grim picture of the current human rights situation, and ultimately of the search for peace, in Cambodia.

Yet, in December 2019, the Prime Minister declared that maintaining peace and stability was paramount, ranking peace as more important than democracy and human rights. This perspective seems to portray a narrow understanding of what constitutes peace and a failure to recognise that peace and democracy are inextricably linked and mutually reinforce each other. Democracy cannot be overlooked in the name of peace and stability: true peace requires an enabling environment in which fundamental freedoms and democratic values are respected.

Considering the current lack of genuine, multi-party democracy and Cambodia’s increasingly worrying human rights situation, “peace” exists solely for some in the Kingdom – its benefits only reaped by the well-connected, the wealthy and the powerful, deepening the gap between the privileged few and the majority of the Cambodian population. Among others, this “peace” made it possible for tycoon-led development projects to proliferate, with no or little consideration for the devastating human and environmental impact they could have. This “peace” has allowed ruling elites to enjoy impunity for grave human rights violations, while ordinary citizens languish in prison on politically-motivated charges. This “peace” has further permitted the ruling party to amend and adopt laws, reinforcing and consolidating its power.

In January, all state institutions and schools were urged to promote the RGC’s “Thank you peace” slogan, aimed at reminding the Cambodian population how precious peace is. By focusing only on the country’s stability and the absence of widespread conflict, this simplistic slogan suggesting that peace has been achieved overlooks – either willfully or ignorantly – the realities on the ground. Severe social injustices, high-levels of corruption and a lack of political representation leading to the disenfranchisement of a huge portion of the Cambodian population continue to plague Cambodia and stand in the way of a truly peaceful state.

Peace cannot simply be declared; it only exists if and to the extent that it is felt by the population. The people of Cambodia’s appreciation of whether peace has been achieved or not is the only one that matters. A people-oriented approach, rooted in democracy and respect for human rights, is therefore direly needed if true peace is ever to become a reality.

Until the government prioritises the well-being of all its citizens over the interests of a privileged few, peace will remain elusive and the government will continue to fall short of fulfilling the Agreements’ vision of a peaceful and democratic Cambodia.

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Gender Human Rights and Peace Campaign

Cambodia’s culture of victim-blaming can be ignored no longer

Cambodian Center for Human Rights executive director Chak Sopheap explains how the Cambodian government’s big promises on women’s rights don’t align with reality – and what must be done

CHAK SOPHEAP
MARCH 11, 2020

Published on the Southeast Asia Globe

Cambodian women from Boeung Kak community march in Phnom Penh on March 8, 2012 – the 101st anniversary of the International Woman day. Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP.

On March 8, Cambodia celebrated International Women’s Day, as we have for the last 25 years, with an official public holiday. Marked by celebrations and events across the country, International Women’s Day champions the women in our community, and celebrates their diversity, strengths and achievements – something society at large often neglects to do.

However, in reality Cambodia’s celebration of women’s rights is superficial. Our society’s treatment of women continues to be problematic, and in order to achieve meaningful gender equality in Cambodia, significant societal reform is necessary.

This year’s International Women’s Day theme was “Generation Equality, Realising Women’s Rights”. The social expectations and attitudes that are harming women in our community do not reflect this vision of equality, nor do they result in the upholding of women’s rights, and it is time we confront this issue. We have a persistent problem with gender-based discrimination and violence, a culture of blaming women for the violence against them, and a practice of silencing or harassing those who stand up for the rights of women.

This year International Women’s Day was celebrated widely across Cambodia. One of these celebrations was an event organised collaboratively by multiple civil society organisations, including the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), at Freedom Park in Phnom Penh. Despite the event being authorised by City Hall, authorities restricted the tent construction at Freedom Park, only permitting four blocks of 4×6 metre tents instead of the 20×20 metre tent intended.

This arbitrary restriction resulted in some of the 400 participants sitting or standing in direct sun. Such actions by the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) to limit the celebration of International Women’s Day and deter citizens from assembling illustrates the RGC’s shallow and superficial efforts to achieve gender equality. In order to uphold the rights of women the RGC must redouble its efforts and ensure that gender equality is prioritised, starting with refraining from fettering events that aim to celebrate women and inform them of their rights.

The prime minister was quoted saying women who wear ‘sexy outfits’ and revealing clothing ‘provoke sexual desires among men, leading to sexual violence and human trafficking.’ These comments belittle women’s rights to bodily autonomy and self-expression

This year on February 17, at the annual meeting of the Cambodian National Council for Women, Prime Minister Hun Sen criticised women who sell products online by promoting their appearance or by wearing revealing clothing. The prime minister claimed these women damage “morality, traditional Khmer women’s values, and Khmer culture”.

Notably, the prime minister was quoted saying women who wear “sexy outfits” and revealing clothing “provoke sexual desires among men, leading to sexual violence and human trafficking”. These comments from Hun Sen belittle women’s rights to bodily autonomy and self-expression, and place blame on women for the violence committed against them rather than on the perpetrators of the crime.

This highlights the continued failure of the Cambodian government to take gender-based violence and women’s rights seriously and underscores the culture of victim-blaming that has been fostered in our community.

A Cambodian woman, carrying her son shouts slogans during a march on International Women’s Day in Phnom Penh on March 8, 2012. According to the United Nations, women of all continents can on International Women’s Day, celebrated annually on March 8, look back to a tradition that represents at least nine decades of struggle for equality, justice, peace and development. AFP PHOTO/ TANG CHHIN SOTHY (Photo by TANG CHHIN SOTHY / AFP)

The CCHR and Cambodian civil society have repeatedly called out instances of victim-blaming by officials with little response or commitment by the government for improvement.

For example, in 2012 the CCHR and other civil society organisations called in an open letter for officials to take action and dismiss Phnom Penh’s deputy police chief due to his unacceptable, facetious and offensive reaction to a lawsuit against him relating to his role in the miscarriage of a female protestor who was kicked in the stomach by a member of his police force. The official was quoted as saying, “Is the victim old or young, and does she sue me to return her kid? I want to tell her that if she wants to get back her kid, I am also young”.

In 2013, civil society groups wrote another letter to the government, this time regarding comments made by another district police chief about the gang rape of a 19-year-old disabled woman in Kandal province. The official was quoted as saying, “It was already 9pm when she was raped. She shouldn’t have been out so late”.

Human rights defenders in 2017 and 2018 spoke out about the death of Pen Kunthea, a sex worker who was chased with five others by the Daun Penh District security guards until she fell into a river, where she was left to drown without any rescue efforts or investigation. There has been no justice for her and the conversation has focused instead on her life as a sex worker.

These are only some of the publicised cases – we know that when it comes to gender-based violence, many instances go unreported or silenced. The inappropriate comments highlighted in these examples and the lack of action or justice for women in response to them illustrates the highly problematic culture of shifting blame onto female victims of crimes, and the longstanding trend of these incidences.

Beyond the injustice faced by victims themselves, such cases also give rise to further affronts to women’s rights when human rights defenders are harassed for standing up for these women. Civil society organisations and rights advocates are regularly targeted and silenced for speaking out against gender discrimination and Cambodia’s unwillingness to take women’s rights seriously.

When the CCHR wrote about the prime minister’s comments regarding “sexy outfits” in February, we received significant harassment from the public for standing up for the rights of women. Many people in the community questioned the integrity of these women, accusing them of being immoral and negatively impacting Khmer culture and traditions, and attempted to silence those defending them. In addition, the prime minister directly mocked rights advocates for criticising his comments, saying that he would pay to put nude photographs of their wives on trees. This attitude towards human rights defenders and women’s rights is highly problematic.

People are quick to judge the morality of women. But they do not speak about the injustices that women face, despite their claims to be protecting female dignity. Our society allows the judgement of women, in the name of women, by men.

The focus of the conversation should not be that women need to change and comply with societally-expected behaviour. It should be on ending gender-based discrimination and empowering women to speak out. A culture that allows women to be blamed for violence against them and encourages such language, especially from the upper echelons of political power, reinforces abuse on women and victims and discourages them from speaking out and seeking help.

Rather than reinforcing tired and arbitrary social customs excusing violence against women, the government should be taking a stand. The government must lead by example and eliminate a culture of victim-blaming by shifting blame back to the perpetrators of the crimes

This International Women’s Day, we all need to take a stand and do better for women and those who defend the rights of women. The RGC has committed to improving women’s rights and to implementing the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. We remind them that this includes an article which insists on “taking appropriate measures to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices … which are based on the idea of inferiority” of women.

We also remind the government of their commitment to implement recommendations from the 2019 Universal Periodic Review, including redoubling efforts to eradicate discrimination against women; putting an end to the harmful practices and discriminatory stereotypes that women are subjected to; stepping up measures to promote human rights; and strengthening the role and status of women in Cambodian society.

Rather than reinforcing tired and arbitrary social customs excusing violence against women, the government should be taking a stand. The RGC must lead by example and eliminate a culture of victim-blaming by shifting blame back to the perpetrators of the crimes. The RGC should encourage society to eliminate gender-based discrimination and violence through the creation of policies and specific anti-discrimination legislation. Furthermore, the RGC must protect human rights defenders and acknowledge the legitimate work of those who stand up for women’s rights.

They should view civil society members as partners in the work of elevating women’s rights and reducing discrimination in our society, rather than mock them or restrict them for taking action. By not taking action, the government is reinforcing the culture of victim-blaming in our society and perpetuating violence against women.

It is also important that Cambodia as a society works towards creating lasting social change. Women and human rights defenders have been at the forefront of the battle for gender equality, but we need everyone to stand up against gender-based discrimination. We encourage women and men alike to join together, be willing to condemn the injustices that take place in our society and stand up for the rights of women.

Categories
Human Rights and Peace Campaign Social Politics

Putting Cambodia back on track

By Sopheap Chak
Published on Southeast Asia Globe on SEPTEMBER 24, 2019
Putting Cambodia back on track
A Cambodian protester holds a portrait of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen during a protest outside the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The residents from Kratie province gathered to protest, calling for Prime Minister Hun Sen to find a solution to solve their land dispute. Photo: Kith Serey/EPA-EFE

The past few years have witnessed systematic restrictions of fundamental freedoms of the ordinary Cambodian population, judicial harassment of journalists and human rights defenders, an increase in land rights violations, sustained attacks against the political opposition and a lack of respect for both international and domestic laws that protect human rights. We have even seen the enactment of laws that overtly disrespect human rights and fundamentally disregard the Constitution, which was itself amended in 2018 to include vague provisions such as the requirement that in their activities political parties and Khmer citizens “primarily uphold the national interest”.

It is time to acknowledge the fact that Cambodia is in the grips of a human rights crisis that has reached a tipping point. Restoring balance is no easy task – Cambodia, more than most countries, is acutely aware of the fact that the pursuit of justice rarely is – but this does not mean that it is impossible.

As Cambodian citizens, the Constitution specifically protects our rights to participate in assemblies and to associate, including to affiliate with a political party

Almost two years since the widely criticised November 2017 Supreme Court decision that dissolved the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and banned 118 senior CNRP officials from political activities for five years, the political domain remains a fraction of the pluralistic, democracy that it once endeavored to be. A surge in harassment of former CNRP members further illustrates an increased effort to suppress any form of political dissent. Cambodia has regressed into a de facto one-party state in which local opposition supporters are left disenfranchised and unrepresented. The relentless rhetoric between Prime Minister Hun Sen and exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy has unnecessarily imposed further divisions across the country, making a mockery of Cambodian politics.

When it comes to the protection of fundamental rights, Cambodia persistently fails to comply with its international human rights obligations to create and maintain a safe and enabling environment for civil society. Instead, civil society is marred by abuses of fundamental freedoms resulting in a severely curtailed civic space. As Cambodian citizens, the Constitution specifically protects our rights to participate in assemblies and to associate, including to affiliate with a political party. Therefore, every time an assembly or association is prevented or interfered with, where there is disproportionate force used towards protestors or threats made to members of an association, or more worryingly where people are subsequently punished for exercising these rights, this is an infringement of international human rights legislation and of our own Constitution.

The former president of the CNRP Kem Sokha shows his inked finger after voting during local council elections in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo: Kith Serey / EPA-EFE

One of the fundamental freedoms most frequently affronted in Cambodia is the right to freedom of expression. Since a clampdown which intensified in 2017, independent voices have been systematically targeted and silenced. The intimidation, harassment and prosecution of individuals exercising their right to freedom of expression has disseminated a clear warning to citizens across the country and the ripples of self-censorship and fear echo throughout the kingdom. Not only has this had a chilling effect on press freedom but also on the lives of everyday citizens, as a large number of free speech violations stem from posts or shares on social media and online platforms.

The context in which these violations are taking place is also of relevance to the deteriorating situation and is itself representative of a challenge that needs to be overcome. Cambodia has undergone vast economic development yet it has come at an expense. The interests of businesses, Cambodian and Chinese alike, and development projects have taken precedent over those of local communities resulting in land rights violations littering rural Cambodia. The environment suffers a sustained assault as forests are razed, Cambodia’s coasts are dredged and mines are emptied.

Social inequality has permeated throughout our country cultivating a widening wealth gap and gentrified cities. This is not sustainable. When will public good be prioritised? When will we begin to respect our obligation to preserve and protect the environment, as required by our Constitution? Once all the lakes have been filled, when the poorest Cambodian’s cannot afford to live in their own cities, and Cambodia has been raped of all her natural resources?

A surge in harassment of former CNRP members further illustrates an increased effort to suppress any form of political dissent.

Another key challenge is Cambodia’s weak institutions which are preventing advancement and achievement of our human rights obligations and seriously undermining the rule of law. Every seat of the National Assembly is occupied by a member of the ruling party, resulting in an institution that affords no opportunity for legitimate cross-party debate and a departure from pluralistic democracy. Our judiciary too requires improvement on multiple fronts if it is not to act as a barrier to justice. Most importantly, the independence of the judiciary should be established in legislation and in practice to ensure a separation of powers as provided for by the Constitution.

Beyond the human impact felt by Cambodian citizens in the everyday exercise of their fundamental rights and freedoms, the present situation has potentially far reaching political and economic implications that cannot be forgotten. The European Commission’s decision to launch the formal monitoring procedure that could lead to the temporary suspension of Cambodia’s preferential access to the European Union (EU) market under the Everything but Arms (EBA) trade scheme, is just one example. Many local labour organisations have warned of the effects that such a suspension could have on the livelihoods of thousands of ordinary labour workers and their families and have urged the government to take action to remedy the situation. It is not just the EU considering sanctions on the basis of Cambodia’s human rights record – the United States (US) too has taken action in the form of the Cambodia Democracy Act of 2019. The Bill, if passed, would allow the President of the US to impose sanctions on Cambodian officials who are found to have “directly and substantially undermined democracy in Cambodia.”

The Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) has tried to underplay the potential impact of sanctions by highlighting the dominant influence China plays in Cambodia’s economic development as its largest creditor and the biggest source of foreign direct investment. However, looking to the experiences of other small countries, many have warned that the Chinese loan model leaves countries debt ridden and in danger of losing their sovereignty and national identity. Already in Cambodia local communities claim they are being left out of economic gain, losing land to big development projects and jobs to Chinese workers.

Cambodian labourers work at a construction site in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo: Kith Serey/EPA-EFE

Facing these challenges and putting Cambodia back on track is no easy task and there are many hurdles to overcome, but all is not lost. There are immediate concrete actions we can take to ensure that the enjoyment of rights enshrined in our Constitution become a reality for all. For example, to restore the civic and political space the RGC can release opposition leader Kem Sokha from house arrest, lift the ban on opposition politicians and release and drop charges against all human rights defenders and journalists detained for exercising their right to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

Alongside improving the space in which individual activists are free to act, the RGC should further commit to enacting legislative and policy amendments including repealing the controversial provisions that have recently been injected into the constitution itself to ensure respect for individual freedoms. Transparency, inclusivity and public consultation in this regard is key. Civil society must be given the opportunity to play a meaningful role in the preparation of law and policy.

It is our duty to advocate for our rights, to remind the state of their obligations, and to engage wholeheartedly in a dialogue that has the potential to change the current landscape and put Cambodia back on track

Democracy and the rule of law cannot thrive in a culture of impunity – and any true commitment to these principles by the RGC must include respect for these principles moving forward but also a commitment to rectifying violations of them in the past. The RGC must ensure that impartial, thorough and effective investigations into all cases of attacks on and harassment and intimidation against human rights defenders are undertaken. An independent, non-partisan judiciary composed of judges who do not hold positions within political parties, is paramount to achieving this. Cambodia cannot move forward until its judiciary becomes stronger and gains independence from outside influence, only then can citizens rely on the courts to deliver justice.

When it comes to sustainable development, it is paramount that our economy is developed in a sustainable manner; development must be balanced against equality, respect, environmental integrity and sovereignty. In order to foster sustainable development Cambodia must balance its approach to diplomacy, building strong relationships across countries without favoring specific blocs and simultaneously preserving and defending the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our country.

Most importantly, it is time to rekindle a national dialogue on these issues that engages public, private and individual actors alike to work together towards respect for a strong democratic state, the rule of law and a commitment to sustainable economic development. A strong and healthy civil society is imperative to the success of this dialogue. While the role of the protection of human rights is a job that falls primarily at the feet of the state, each individual has her or his role to play. It is our duty to advocate for our rights, to remind the state of their obligations, and to engage wholeheartedly in a dialogue that has the potential to change the current landscape and put Cambodia back on track.

Categories
Human Rights and Peace Campaign

On the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples 2019, we celebrate Cambodia’s Indigenous Peoples’ rights

By Sopheap Chak
Published on Sithi on August 8, 2019
CCHR met with local communities and Indigenous People in Kratie Province in March 2019 to get an update on their challenging experiences with the issue of land dispute.

On the occasion of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, we wish to jointly celebrate Cambodia’s indigenous communities’ rights.

The rights of Indigenous peoples are guaranteed under Cambodian and International human rights law. These rights include the right to tradition, the right to religion, as well as the right to land and the right to free and informed consent.

Despite these guarantees, indigenous peoples in Cambodia have lost their land at an alarming rate due to large-scale logging of forests, resource extraction, infrastructure projects, and land concessions. In response to these challenges, the Royal Government of Cambodia (“RGC”) has, in theory, recognized collective land rights of indigenous peoples; the 2001 Land Law and the Sub-Decree No.83 on the Procedures of Registration of Land of Indigenous Communities provide for specific recognition of the concept of collective ownership of land, allowing indigenous communities to legally register their communal lands under collective land titles (“CLTs”).

Traditionally, indigenous peoples in Cambodia sustain their livelihoods through cultivating forested land, utilizing a technique known as shifting cultivation, as well as hunting wild animals and gathering forest by-products. In addition, the beliefs, traditions, and identities of indigenous communities in Cambodia are closely tied to the land, which carries major spiritual significance as a link to their ancestors and natural spirits. Despite the importance of land to indigenous communities and the comprehensive legal framework that protects their land rights, in practice the process of obtaining a CLT is lengthy and extremely complex, often subject to lengthy delays due to a lack of political will. Moreover, a lack of implementation of the law has led to Cambodia’s indigenous communities fast losing their communal land and natural resources. As of May 2019only 24 out of 458 indigenous communities have received CLTs.

The alienation of indigenous people from their land threatens the very existence of Cambodia’s indigenous population. We therefore renew calls on the Royal Government of Cambodia to take appropriate steps to protect the rights of indigenous communities. In particular, the RGC should take concrete measures to facilitate the procedures for CLTs, in line with several recommendation accepted by Cambodia during it third Universal Periodic Review (“UPR”). These include the recommendations to “Take measure to simplify the allocation of community land concessions to indigenous peoples” (110.21), and to “Step up efforts in land matters, including through the effective and transparent implementation of measure to tackle land evictions, and provide the victims of land grabbing, particularly indigenous people, with fair compensation” (110.130).

Furthermore, indigenous rights defenders in Cambodia have faced increasing risks in conducting their legitimate work advocating for the promotion and protection of indigenous peoples’ rights, including acts of violence. We renew calls on the RGC to promptly take measures to protect human rights defenders (“HRDS”), and specifically ensure that HRDs are able to carry out their legitimate activities without fear or undue hindrance, obstruction or judicial harassment and other forms of harassment or violence. The RGC must also conduct impartial, thorough and effective investigations into all cases of attacks on and harassment and intimidation against HRDs, including indigenous rights activists, and bring the perpetrators to justice. This in line with Cambodia’s commitment under the UPR to implement a number of recommendations including the recommendation to “Protect […] human rights defenders, […] from harassment, arbitrary arrest and physical attacks, and investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of such attacks” (110.113).

Categories
Human Rights and Peace Campaign

On World Press Freedom Day, we call for protection of journalists and a free press in South East Asia and across the world

By Sopheap Chak
Published on Sithi on May 3, 2019

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Throughout Southeast Asia, too many journalists face risks as a result of their profession, including violence, harassment, and criminal charges. This is despite the fact that states are obligated to prevent, protect against, and prosecute attacks against journalists and human rights defenders, and uphold freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right which includes the right to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, in diverse forms. Its value is particularly high in the context of political discourse.

On World Press Freedom Day 2019, journalists and media outlets have the opportunity to celebrate their work and the multiple ways in which they contribute to a more transparent society. In democratic societies, the role of the media is crucial to ensure that reliable information reaches the public, including coverage of human rights abuses. Importantly, it is crucial that women are involved in both the content creation and creative control of media in order to ensure that gender-based violations come to light, and to provide a parity of gender perspectives and voices in the content that we read, hear and watch. However, if a landscape for independent media is not enabled and supported by states, a journalist’s work becomes perilous.

Two Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, jailed for their reporting on the massacre of Rohingya Muslims, recently had their latest appeal rejected by Myanmar’s Supreme Court. They were charged with violating a colonial-era secrets law for carrying out work to expose the atrocities committed by the country’s military, which has been accused of genocide by the United Nations. In the Philippines, repeated judicial harassment against journalist and free press advocate, and critic of President Rodrigo Duterte’s rule, Maria Ressa, has seen her arrested twice within two months. In Vietnam, the blogger Truong Duy Nhat, who was previously detained for two years due to his critical blogging on the Communist Party’s leadership, is currently being held without charge at a detention center in Hanoi after he went missing in Bangkok, where he had applied for refugee status.

Here in Cambodia, former Radio Free Asia (RFA) journalists Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin were held in pre-trial detention for over nine months on spurious charges of espionage, and finally released on bail in August 2018. The charges continue to hang over them. Both reported on a number of human rights issues including land disputes, workers’ rights, and the use of state violence. Over the last two years, measures taken by the government have seriously weakened free press in Cambodia, and today there is a shortage of independent, impartial and rigorous news reporting. The closure of the Cambodia Daily and RFA offices in Phnom Penh, as well as the sale of the Phnom Penh Post, have made truly independent media outlets scarce.

Due to this onslaught against its independent media, Cambodia fell one place in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index (WPFI), to 143 of 180 countries. Across Southeast Asia, six of the 11 countries in the region also dropped on the WPFI, while Malaysia leads the way as one of the three countries that moved up the index.

Freedom of information and freedom of expression are fundamental rights, and journalists must be permitted to exercise them in order to do their work, including by exposing corruption, criticizing public policy, and illuminating human rights violations, without fear of negative repercussions.

A journalist’s work should be secure, safe and supported. On World Press Freedom Day, we call for protection and support of our independent media, from publishers, from the government, and from the public.

Categories
Community Work Personal

Turning 34: My birthday celebration for a school cause

On weekend, a day after International Women Day (IWD) celebration, I met my 5 years old niece and I wanted her to practice her English learning at school. Then I asked her to start the conversation. Her first question to me was: How old are you?

With work, meetings, and celebrations around IWD, my brain was a bit slow to run with number and only after a while, then I realized I would turn thirty-four in coming days. Then I thought back in time and how ages and circumstances matter:

I got a dream when I turned ten: I wanted to be a doctor. It was just imagination but I wanted to be a famous doctor in Cambodia and if possible in the world to cure poor people. As I am a left-handed person, I wished that I could use this left hand to cure people effectively.

Then my dream changed. When I turned twenty I started an internship with a civil society organization instead of pursuing the nursing degree that could fulfill my dream. This was the pathway that totally changed my vision. Ten years later, I am obsessed with civil society work and social media platforms, and I have realized that this is who I want to be, not the doctor I had dreamt to become.

However, putting my life-path back to the intersection where I turned my back to a medical doctor career, probably other scenario could have happened. I might have been satisfied with myself or not, but I keep joking about that: probably those who know me now would have been my clients for medical service, or maybe we would have not met in this life-path.

Indeed, my dream changed due to circumstances. It was the family’s livelihood reason and the fact that I could not afford to learn French language since young age so that I could well prepare for medical school examination, instead I could only manage to get pass for nursing school.

I looked back to my niece and responded to her so that she would know my age by now. Looking at her, it fills with full conviction in me that I would do my best to support her to fulfill her dream.

Suddenly, when I turned to my mobile and surf through Facebook, a news came up on my wall: an educational center for poor students run by a renown Cambodian journalist would be soon facing a closure. The news hit my heart strongly as I have followed the news about the school sometimes and I was impressed at how generosity and commitment that the journalist and his friends help to support young kids in a rural village of Svay Rieng province. The school have helped to educate a number of poor kids with English and computer skills for free of charge and that allows those poor kids and their parents to support them to educational opportunities. I believe those kids has their dream and with opportunity support, I hope their dream could come true.

Therefore, I now have a wish to celebrate my 34th birthday: that you all join my cause to support this school. The center would need at least 900$ to operate monthly to help educating about 200 kids. Hence, to celebrate my birthday, I call for your gift so that the collected amount will go to the cause for supporting this school operation (see photos of the school and its activities below).

I will start collecting my birthday gift from now until 30th March when I will really turn 34. Gift me with three numbered—which could be $3 or $34 or more—for “My Thirty-Four Birthday Celebration”!

Your gift will be properly collected, recorded and managed with transparency and accountability. Click here to gift me. Thanks to the Cambodian Center for Human Rights who kindly support this cause and allow the cash flow to go through its donation page. Hence, please kindly help to specify your donation with subject/note: For Sopheap’s Birthday Cause if you choose to donate online via this platform.

Alternatively, please contact me via chaksopheap@gmail.com for any inquiry about this cause or way of donation.

(Photo courtesy to the school founder May Titthara and Khmernas)

Categories
Human Rights and Peace Campaign

The 70th anniversary of UDHR: What does this mean for civil society in Cambodia?

People were visiting one of human rights booths at the celebration of 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 8 December 2018 at the Olympic Stadium. It was mainly hosted by the Cambodian Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) together with embassies and Cambodian Human Rights Committee. Notably other separate events were also organized by local communities, while many were successfully arranged as planned, some were still experienced obstructions by the local authorities.

As we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December, Human Rights Day, we will doubtless reflect on the many ways that the historic and universal rights enshrined in its provisions line up with recent developments in Cambodia. The UDHR is the mother of countless human rights treaties, resolutions and international laws that have elaborated on its founding principles, and set a global standard for the way in which we, as humans, should live. However, Cambodia, and the world, has seen a pushback against the basic rights and freedoms guaranteed in the Declaration, leaving citizens suffering human rights abuses at the hands of authoritarian states.

The 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a milestone that resonates with the citizens of Cambodia. Its principles form the backbone of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia, the promulgation of which ushered in a new era in which rights and freedoms would be guaranteed. It was a break with a past that had been unrelentingly violent and bereft of civil liberties. Unfortunately, many of the Constitution’s core values have been contradicted in recent years by new and repressive laws and regulations seeking to undermine the very rights that were meant to put an end to the human rights violations of the past.

There are reasons to celebrate on Human Rights Day this year. Human rights defenders and former politicians have been released from prison, although some still have outstanding charges or suspended sentences hanging over them. In particular, Tep Vanny, who was detained for two years for peaceful protest, is finally free. We are surrounded by a thriving international community of institutions, organizations and individuals who champion and raise awareness of human rights. This community has been integral in bringing Cambodian issues to a global audience. The Royal Government has responded to domestic and international calls for pressure to be lifted, and as recently as last week, the government attempted to steps to strengthen democracy and the political space.

However, Cambodia has seen a deterioration of its human rights over the last two years. Progress fought for and won since the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1991 has been reversed, with the core pillars of a democratic state attacked. The main opposition party, at the peak of its popularity, was dissolved by the Supreme Court following a complaint by the Ministry of Interior. Its leaders have been judicially harassed and politically sterilized. Cambodia’s free press, and the blossoming online community of commentators that came with our digital evolution, have been silenced, with media houses perceived as critical to the ruling party forced to close. Citizens no longer feel safe sharing their views on social media. And civil society has been targeted by a slew of newly enacted laws and amended legislation that have made it all too easy for state actors to take legal action against those working for the sustainable development of our country.

This has echoed broader regional trends of severe human rights abuses carried out unapologetically by Southeast Asian regimes. In Vietnam, human rights defenders are treated as “enemies of the state” and handed disproportionately harsh sentences for exercising their fundamental freedoms. In Thailand, defamation or notorious lèse-majesté charges are brought against those who stand up for the rights of others. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs” marches on with rampant impunity for extrajudicial killings. And in Myanmar, where the military is accused of genocide by a UN report, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees are stranded, stateless, at the border, or forced back to the danger of Rakhine state. And further afield, we see totalitarian strongmen curtailing the rights of their citizens, often under the guise of national security or sovereignty; in the USA, Brazil, Poland, China, and many more. Around the world, civic space is closing.

What does this mean for civil society in Cambodia? The continuing restriction of freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of assembly will inevitably mean that non-governmental organizations, community groups and human rights defenders are unable to fully carry out their important work. The Cambodian Center for Human Rights has persevered through these difficult conditions to promote and protect the civil and political rights of Cambodian citizens while civil society has had its activities monitored, events cancelled, staff surveilled, and organizations shut down or forced to deregister. Amid the crackdown, CCHR was even threatened with closure.

The Royal Government of Cambodia must ensure accountability for the widespread human rights abuses happening in Cambodia. This is more crucial than ever considering that all official systems of checks and balances have evaporated in the absence of a viable opposition, any truly independent media, or an unimpeded voice from civil society.

But even as human rights are suppressed, individuals continue to counter restrictions. Human rights defenders carry out their work despite the increasingly restrictive environment, promoting and protecting the rights of all of us. They risk threats, intimidation, arrest and their liberty to prevent violations such as arbitrary killings, unlawful detention, restrictions on fundamental freedoms, abuses in the judicial system, systematic discrimination, land grabbing, mass evictions, forced displacement, statelessness, exclusion from the rewards of development, and destruction of the natural environment and its resources.

Moving forward, Cambodia must honor the legacy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It must only welcome development if it is orchestrated under a human rights framework, in respect of the sustainable development goals. Goal 16, to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels, must be at the forefront of state policy as Cambodia progresses from its dark past to a brighter future. A future in which all Cambodian citizens stand to gain a higher quality of life – if wealth is spread fairly, without corruption; if the judicial system operates independently, without recourse to power; and if the fundamental freedoms of citizens are assured, even if they are exercised in criticism of the government.

On Human Rights Day 2018 we should celebrate our human rights defenders, and work together to ensure that the state upholds the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; a commitment it made long ago. We all continue to #StandUp4HumanRights.

Categories
Human Rights and Peace Campaign Human Rights and Peace Campaign

Never Forget Kem Ley

written by CHAK Sopheap, Executive Director, Cambodian Center For Human Rights 

Photo courtesy of CCHR: Kem Ley at one of CCHR’s human rights radio talkshow.

It was a very relaxing and fresh morning in Sihanoukville. I was driving down a road that ran alongside a peaceful beach with my husband. Suddenly, the phone rang, and I picked it up. It was my colleague, which worried me because I knew she would never call me on a Sunday, especially knowing I was on leave for my 5-year wedding anniversary. Her voice was terrified as she quickly said: Mr. Kem Ley was killed. She continued that he was killed at Starmart, near our office. I was not sure how to respond; I asked her if she was sure, holding on to the possibility that she could be wrong and the information she had was fake. I asked her to have our colleagues check the facts immediately.

I then checked Facebook; whenever there is big news, you can be sure Cambodians will share and post about it on Facebook. My heart went numb as I saw all the posts about his killing – the scene where he was shot, and the crowd where people eagerly gathered to see what had happened. I was speechless. I felt like my heart was breaking into pieces. I could not believe what my colleague had told me, and what Facebook was now telling me, with the screen full of posts about Kem Ley — the man who used to serve as our board member, and who never turned his back on us if we needed his advice, even after leaving our board.

In that moment of silence, many questions came to my mind. How would his wife and children, who I met and interacted with, handle the news? How would we, civil society advocates and the public, feel after his killing? This was a shocking moment for many of us who believed that Cambodia was moving away from politically-motivated killings and violence, and that our main concern now was legal and judicial harassment of human rights defenders.

Between 2012 to 2014, Kem Ley was a board member at CCHR. After that, he moved on to continue his social work in the provinces, he often returned as a guest on our radio show. Nobody could speak to the hearts of the people quite like him. He was unique.

Kem Ley is most commonly described as a political analyst. Though accurate, this description feels insufficient to capture the work he did, the people he engaged, the bravery he showed, and the message he sent to Cambodians everywhere. Kem Ley was unshaking in his commitment to the truth. He did not let fear or bias sway him, and criticized both the main parties at time, when he felt it was merited. In the days leading up to his death, it is said that Kem Ley knew his life was in danger, yet still he spoke out against the corruption and injustice that was continuing to impact the lives of ordinary Cambodians.

Kem Ley made social and political issues something that everybody could be part of, a space in which no voice was devalued. He was a true democrat, and he believed that any political party – ruling or opposition – only had value and legitimacy if it listened to the ordinary people, connected with them, and amplified their voices.

But Kem Ley had no desire to become a political leader. He wanted to learn as much as to teach, and he soon returned to his work with the communities in whose hands he saw the future of Cambodia. His final project – the ‘100 Nights Campaign’ – was an extensive exploration into the deep-rooted challenges faced by Cambodian society. He toured the country, staying with rural communities and hearing their stories of vulnerability, displacement and the destruction of their livelihoods as a result of economic land concessions granted to corporations. He only reached ‘Night 19’.

Kem Ley also poured much of his time and energy into working with young people. In 2015, he founded the Young Analysts Group (YAG) – a group of students and young intellectuals who he trained in basic research, journalism and analytical skills. Through inspiring young people, Kem Ley hoped to reinvigorate the country’s social consciousness, and see the next generation lead the way in demanding good governance, equality and social justice. Though Kem Ley’s young mentees were shaken by his death, this has not stopped them. Even beyond the grave, Kem Ley continues to inspire.

Aside from his legacy in the public sphere, Kem Ley also left behind a family. His wife, Bou Rachna, and five sons, one of whom was born four months after his death, fled Cambodia a month after his murder. After a difficult period living in Bangkok, they were finally granted asylum by the Australian authorities. Two years after Kem Ley’s murder, they are still waiting for true justice.

On the second anniversary of his death, I remember Kem Ley, and the values he stood for. He was loved because he always told the truth, and in his memory, we long for the same. Rest in peace, rest in power.

The only long lasting security that safeguards us is the heart of our people” – Kem Ley

Categories
Human Rights and Peace Campaign Social Politics

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.