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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.

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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.