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Human Rights and Peace Campaign Social Politics

Imperfect pact: remembering the Paris Peace Agreement

Content image - Phnom Penh Post

From left: Khmer Rouge factions leaders Im Chuun Lin, Cambodian Premier Hun Sen, Dith Munty, Cambodian Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Ieng Mouly and Khieu Samphan applaud after signing the treaty that ended decades of civil war in Cambodia on October 23, 1991, in Paris. AFP

Fri, 23 October 2015

On this day 24 years ago, 19 governments came together to sign the Paris Peace Agreements, which finally provided a comprehensive political settlement to end the “tragic conflict and continuing bloodshed” that tore Cambodia apart for decades.

Since 1970, Cambodia was respectively ravaged by an intensive bombing campaign by foreign militaries, a coup d’état, the inconceivable horror of the Khmer Rouge regime, and a bloody civil war. As some of the worst victims of the brutality of Cold War realpolitick, it is truly a testament to the spirit of the Cambodian people that the nation has been able to move on from such a history.

Today, it is appropriate for all of us to reflect and appreciate our relative fortune, compared with the extreme suffering of previous generations. There are now no bombs devastating our countryside, no forced labour camps imprisoning our people, and no fresh mass graves filled with our best and brightest.

Yes, peace has come to Cambodia – but today’s peace is an imperfect, fragile, peace-for-some. While political leaders use this anniversary to loudly declare their achievements in bringing peace to Cambodia, we must remember that widespread and ongoing violations of human rights, the stifling of democratic space, and crackdowns on dissenting voices have become dark features of peacetime Cambodia.

Peace should not be described as merely the absence of war or violence, which is “negative peace”. It should also include communal harmony, socioeconomic cooperation and equal political representation in government for all citizens. These, along with good governance, which respects the rights of the people, constitute “the positive peace”, or rather peace building.

Today, we celebrate peace. Yet, we should ask, what peace is there for the family of Mao Sok Chan, the innocent bystander killed by security forces with impunity in September 2013? What peace is there for Khem Sophath, the 16-year old boy disappeared during a protest in January 2014, or the countless other victims of impunity in Cambodia?

What peace is there for the hundreds of thousands of Cambodians who find themselves landless and displaced, their homes and farmland granted as land concessions to the rich and well-connected, many of whom have robbed Cambodia of its natural resources for ruthless profit? Undoubtedly, there is peace-for-some in Cambodia: the well connected tycoons, political leaders, and their cronies live in quite perfect peace, without fear of arbitrary imprisonment, judicial harassment, and violence.

For those who dare to speak out, on the other hand – the activists, environmentalists, human rights defenders, trade unionists, land community leaders, and ordinary people expressing critical opinions online – there is no genuine peace.

With the commune and national elections coming up in 2017 and 2018, respectively, a systematic campaign to clamp down on dissent in all its forms is under way in Cambodia (as described in a recent publication by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights titledCambodia: Democracy Under Threat).

Oppressive laws that curtail human rights and fundamental freedoms, such as the recently passed Law on Non-Governmental Organizations and Associations (LANGO), the draft Trade Union Law, and the proposed Cybercrime Law, are all examples of this trend, which has accellerated in recent months. At the same time, there has been a sharp increase in politically motivated arrests and convictions on spurious grounds.

Equally concerning is the threat that this fragile “peace” may not last. Recently, Prime Minister Hun Sen has used every opportunity to publicly warn the people of Cambodia of “civil war”, should his party fail to win the next national election.

These warnings have been backed up by statements by senior military figures regarding their loyalty to the ruling party, and their commitment to suppressing any so-called “colour revolution”. Of course, these statements are orchestrated to strike fear into the hearts of a population that has been so deeply scarred by conflict.

Nonetheless, they cannot be perceived as empty threats, as the ruling elite of Cambodia have shown on many occasions that they are quite capable of significant violence in the name of securing power.

Peace, democracy and human rights are inextricably linked and mutually dependent. In a society where human rights are not respected, peace cannot exist, because true peace requires the space for peaceful expression, peaceful assembly, peaceful association and the peaceful enjoyment of all human rights.

If the current leaders of this country wish to be remembered as peacemakers, they must halt their campaign to curtail human rights, and allow democracy to flourish in Cambodia.

Chak Sopheap is the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and a peace studies graduate from the International University of Japan.

Categories
Human Rights and Peace Campaign Social Politics

When Justice is a Prisoner

Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association president Vorn Pov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Human Rights and Peace Campaign Social Politics

What direction is civil society space taking in Cambodia?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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