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

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.

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

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.

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

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.