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.

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.

Human Rights and Peace Campaign Social Politics

Standing with civil society in Cambodia

People protest at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court earlier this month after members of civil society were detained and charged.

People protest at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court earlier this month after members of civil society were detained and charged. Pha Lina
(published on analysis and op-ed of the Phnom Penh Post, 11 May 2016)

Nearly 25 years ago, history was made with the signing of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, which aimed to put an end to years of devastating conflict in Cambodia. The agreements were thought to signal a new era for a peaceful Cambodia, laying the foundations for building a Cambodia that was just and democratic, and which respected human rights and the rule of law.

Two years later, under the guidance of the United Nations, Cambodia’s first constitutionally elected government assumed power. During the elections, polls were open for six days, yet 42 per cent of the voters cast their votes on the first day – almost 2.1 million Cambodians.

Against all odds – torrential rain, and a campaign of threats and violence from the remnants of the Khmer Rouge and other armed groups – people were hopeful about the prospect of peace and democracy in their country. Almost 90 per cent of the population voted.

But did we achieve the democracy we were promised? If we ever did have it, it is undoubtedly now under severe threat given the recent attacks on civil society.

A cornerstone of any democracy and a crucial factor in ensuring respect for human rights is the fostering of a strong, independent civil society. This was something that was specifically guaranteed by both the government and international partners in the Paris Peace Agreements.

As part of the agreements, it was stated that Cambodia will endeavour to “ensure respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cambodia” and “support the right of all Cambodian citizens to undertake activities that would promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms”.

Moreover, as part of this historic agreement, the eighteen countries and the UN who are also signatories, promised “to promote and encourage respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cambodia as embodied in the relevant international instruments in order, in particular, to prevent the recurrence of human rights abuses”.

Since the Paris Peace Agreements were signed, human rights organisations have undertaken vital work to promote and protect the human rights of all Cambodians, while providing assistance to countless victims of rights abuses. In the past, Cambodia has even been praised for having a relatively vibrant civil society, showing how far we have come.

However, current events threaten the progress made in this area, and give cause to reflect on the vital role of a free civil society in Cambodia as well as on whether sufficient actions have been taken by those who promised to help uphold it. Recent weeks have seen the rapid deterioration of the already fragile state of affairs for Cambodian human rights defenders, independent political commentators and activists.

Too many are being judicially harassed and denied their rights to liberty, freedom of expression and a fair trial. Young people are being jailed for harmless statements posted on social media platforms. Citizens peacefully defending their land and natural resources against exploitation are being arrested, threatened and even killed, while the perpetrators of such violence enjoy impunity.

Laws – such as the NGO Law and Trade Union Law – are being introduced that can too easily be wilfully misinterpreted and applied to curtail freedoms, and groups’ rights to assemble and protest against such developments are being further curtailed.

All Cambodians want to see reforms that will improve their livelihoods, security and wellbeing, and if the government is to achieve its goals of a better Cambodia, independent civil society should be seen a key partner, not an enemy. Our leaders should recall the spirit of the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991 and the democratic principles enshrined in our constitution, and collaborate with civil society.

The responsibility upon the international community to ensure that human rights are respected in Cambodia also remains to this day. After the 2013 elections, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia at the time acknowledged this continuing responsibility.

Now, it should be reiterated in light of the recent visit of the person currently assuming this role, Rhona Smith. Smith reported concern at the deteriorating situation she witnessed during her visit, describing the Cambodia she saw as being on the brink of a “dangerous tipping point”.

Of course, Cambodia has not returned to the horrors of its past, and hopefully it never will. But that cannot be a benchmark for success now. Today’s Cambodia does not compare well with the picture of a free and democratic country envisioned in the Paris Peace Agreements.

And if that vision is to be realised, greater responsibility is required from the government in safeguarding the freedoms set out in our Constitution and international instruments. In particular, the government needs to recognise the important role of a vibrant civil society in Cambodia and it would be prudent for the authorities to work with us towards our common goal – the good of all Cambodians.

Cambodia is long overdue the basic tenets of a liberal democracy – unrestricted civil society, free and fair elections, rule of law, and an independent judiciary.

Global civil society, international actors and all those who signed the Paris Peace Agreements also need to take action, to assist Cambodian civil society and the government to work together to ensure the Kingdom steps back from the brink and continues on a path towards a better future.

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