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Human Rights and Peace Campaign Social Politics

Cambodia needs to prioritise access to information law

(published on analysis and op-ed of the Phnom Penh Post, 18 February 2015)
Supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange wearing Guy Fawkes masks

Supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, wearing Guy Fawkes masks, stand outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2012. AFP

Cambodia needs to prioritise access to information law

Over the past few weeks, the government has repeatedly asserted its intention to introduce a state secrets law in Cambodia. In a country that has not yet adopted a solid access to information law and has showed no hesitancy in restricting freedom of expression, such declarations are a cause for serious concern. In fact, the public right of access to information is not only the other side to freedom of expression, it is the backbone of democracy.

In recent years, a significant number of states around the world have engaged in public debate over the balance between the right to information and the need for state secrets, subsequently adopting or revising classification regimes and related laws. Finding the right balance remains though a delicate exercise that requires attentive reflection and large consultations. In 2013, for example, Japan passed a state secrecy law that sparked widespread criticism and concerns as it includes serious threats to whistleblowers and even journalists reporting on areas the government defines as secrets.

Similarly, China has been internationally condemned for broadly classifying information as secrets and using its own state-secrets law to jail dissidents.

In 2013, 17 organisations and five academic centres, in consultation with four special rapporteurs on freedom of expression and the media from the UN, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Organization of American States (OAS), and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), as well as with the UN special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, issued a set of principles on national security and the right to information, the so-called Tshwane Principles. This authoritative document restated that national security and the public’s right to know do not go necessarily in the opposite direction.

This is certainly true, and the Cambodian government has repeatedly asserted that the draft law on state secrets would address national security issues, such as the leaking of secret information of the police, military and government. However, a state secrets law could help conceal government wrongdoings and further limit the right to information if clear standards or procedures for classifying or otherwise withholding information on security grounds are not properly established. Last year’s comments from Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan go in that direction. He made the suggestion that people were not supposed to have a copy of the leaked cybercrime draft law and that they could be in trouble.

Vagueness of the criteria used for classifying information as a “state secret” and a lack of transparency in the drafting process, which would not be new to the Cambodian government practice, are not an option when it comes to the right to information and in turn to democracy. In fact, no state secrets law should be passed until after an access to information law is adopted.

The timing of these declarations on a state secrets law is also very disappointing as national discussion and active campaigning for an access to information law has been on-going for more than a decade. Since 2001, NGOs working in the country have pushed for greater transparency and education of democratic rights that would in turn enhance the exercise of the right to freedom of expression.

A solid draft law and an amended version were submitted to the National Assembly in 2010 and 2012, respectively. Both were rejected.

Despite these efforts to increase access to information, government officials in Cambodia often simply choose not to implement the few provisions related to freedom of information that currently exist in domestic law, for example under the 1995 Law on the Press or the 2005 Archives Law. This, paired with a politically subservient judiciary and restrictive police force, has prevented Cambodia from developing a strong freedom of information framework and from exercising full freedom of expression.

Democracy requires an informed citizenship and accountable leadership. For these goals to be realised, the public’s right to know must be protected and positively enforced through legislation and the active implementation of freedom of information principles.

Certain information may legitimately be secret on grounds of national security or protection of other overriding interests. However, abuses of power occur when a government is not open and accountable. The lack of access to sufficient and accurate information severely hinders the ability of journalists and civil society to provide information and encourage debate. Increasing public access to information through the adoption of a comprehensive access to information law will allow Cambodians to exercise their democratic right to participate in decision-making processes and to freedom of expression. It will also equip them with the necessary information to make informed decisions about issues that affect them, in turn increasing the transparency and accountability of those individuals and bodies that wield power in Cambodia.

A secrecy law should not be adopted until the right of access to information is solidly guaranteed in the country. When a stronger legislative infrastructure on the right to information has been developed in Cambodia, national security could be considered as a legitimate while specific exception to that right.

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

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Human Rights and Peace Campaign Social Politics

Will 2015 be a year of change for Cambodia’s land rights crisis?

(published on analysis and op-ed of the Phnom Penh Post, 30 December 2014)

Boeung Kak Lake activist Nget Khun

Boeung Kak Lake activist Nget Khun, calls to community members from a window at Phnom Penh Municipal Court last month after she was detained by authorities.Vireak Mai

 

Earlier this month, in Prey Sar prison on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, I sat and talked with Tep Vanny, Song Srey Leap, Kong Chantha and Nget Khun, four inspirational activists from the city’s Boeung Kak lake community. They were jailed in early November after protesting against the now infamous 2007 real estate deal which saw the lake filled with sand and thousands of people forcibly evicted.

They looked pale and tired, but spoke with quiet dignity of their determination to seek justice for the loss of their land. In today’s Cambodia, they are not alone.

Steady economic growth and a large influx of aid since the end of civil war in the early 1990s have brought significant change to the country. According to World Bank estimates, Cambodia achieved the UN Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty by 2009, and Phnom Penh is now dotted with a growing number of sleek new apartment buildings, shopping malls and fashionable coffee shops.

However, as the country’s violent past recedes, Cambodia is in the grip of a volatile new conflict over land and natural resources. Policies pursuing economic liberalisation, export expansion and foreign investment have led to rising prices and an insatiable demand for land, leading to frequent clashes between the interests of local communities and politically connected big business. With large swathes of the country leased for commercial exploitation through economic land concessions, insecurity of tenure due to a widespread lack of formal land titles and weak rule of law have facilitated a wave of land grabs and forced evictions, sometimes accompanied by shocking levels of violence.

The scale of the problem can seem overwhelming, but despite the dangers, brave men and women across Cambodia are standing up to challenge violations of their land rights. Often, they are met with harassment and attacks. Within 36 hours of the arrest of seven Boeung Kak lake community activists on November 10, including those I met with, all had been detained, interviewed by a prosecutor, charged with obstructing traffic, tried, convicted and sentenced to a year in jail and issued a $500 fine, the maximum permitted under the law. A further three women and a monk faced similar treatment the following day, detained while protesting the arrest of their fellow activists and hastily convicted of obstructing public officials.

However, when complaints are lodged against powerful business interests attempting to forcibly acquire land, the justice system is not so nimble. In 2005, a dispute arose between the family of Ly Srea Kheng from Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kork district and a company owned by Khun Sear, a business associate of the head of the Senate President’s Bodyguard Unit. They have endured a campaign of threats and attacks by security guards hired by the company, including having a bag of venomous cobras thrown into their house. Despite several complaints filed before the courts, no action has been taken against the perpetrators. By contrast, following complaints from Khun Sear, police arrested Kheng on the morning of November 18 without showing a warrant or even allowing him time to get properly dressed. His 23-year-old daughter Ly Seav Minh was arrested later the same day. That evening, a company representative contacted Kheng’s son to negotiate, suggesting an abuse of the judicial process to force the family to accept the company’s terms. Kheng was bailed on December 5, but his daughter remains in detention.

Such harsh treatment of vulnerable people embroiled in land disputes does nothing to resolve the underlying problems, and can only exacerbate tensions among affected communities. As the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) has previously documented, one reason for the large number of disputes is a lack of adequate resolution mechanisms. Few people are even aware of those that do exist, which in any case have proved largely ineffective. Despite the many legal protections found in Cambodia’s Constitution, national and international law, illegal land grabs continue.

While institutional and judicial reform is certainly necessary, what is truly lacking is the political will to protect land rights in practice. Hun Sen’s “Heroic Samdech Techo Volunteer Youth” land-titling campaign, aimed at strengthening security of tenure through the provision of formal land titles, met with tentative initial praise, but proved highly problematic in execution and failed to assess disputed land. The government is currently developing a white paper on land policy and a new law on environmental impact assessments, initiatives that to its credit have involved consultations with civil society, but whether their concerns will be addressed remains to be seen.

In the absence of decisive action on the part of the government, local communities and civil society are coming up with innovative strategies to challenge land rights violations. After years of campaigning, activists from Boeung Kak lake welcomed Singaporean firm HLH’s recent decision to withdraw from the development for “commercial reasons”. Elsewhere, in a landmark case of transnational human rights litigation, villagers from Koh Kong have brought claims against UK sugar giant Tate and Lyle in the UK courts with support from the Community Legal Education Center. The villagers say that they were violently evicted from their land by armed military police to make way for sugar plantations, which the company subsequently sourced from.

While these noble efforts are to be lauded, the primary responsibility for dealing with insecurity of tenure and ensuring the peaceful resolution of disputes remains with the government. CCHR is calling for the release of all land activists detained simply for protesting violations of their human rights. In 2014, communities caught up in Cambodia’s land rights crisis stood up with bravery and resolve to demand change. I only hope that in 2015, the government will finally heed their calls.

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

Categories
Human Rights and Peace Campaign Social Politics

Political judiciary versus an independent judiciary in Cambodia

(published on analysis and op-ed of the Phnom Penh Post, 21 November 2014)

Monks, activists and supporters take part in a protest at Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison

Monks, activists and supporters take part in a protest at Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison earlier this week to demand the release of 17 imprisoned activists, monks and opposition members. Vireak Mai

Political judiciary versus an independent judiciary in Cambodia

Fri, 21 November 2014

It is a surprise to no one that the judiciary in Cambodia is not an independent and impartial body. However, the recent wave of politically motivated arrests and speedy trials cannot pass unnoticed.

Over the past week, more than 15 people, including Meach Sovannara and Tep Narin of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), land rights activists and monks have been arrested, tried and convicted in a series of hurried and unfair trials. This crackdown on dissent is particularly timely for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), as it is in the midst of negotiations with the opposition party, the CNRP, on reforming the National Election Committee (NEC).

The government itself implicitly admitted using the judiciary as a political tool when, on November 15, Interior Ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak stated that if the opposition was willing to collaborate more on the NEC, Meach Sovannara would not face a long jail term.

If Cambodia were truly democratic, there would be no place for such statements, and the law would protect citizens from abuses of power rather than being used as a tool to harass those expressing dissent.

The application of law should not be negotiable, no matter whose interests are at stake. However, Cambodians are again witnessing the opposite, and remain victims of judicial double standards: impunity for members of the security forces and government supporters is the rule, while activists and political opponents continue to be arrested, summarily tried, promptly convicted and imprisoned in most cases.

No one can forget the case of Chhuk Bundith, former Bavet city governor, who confessed to shooting three female factory workers protesting at Svay Rieng Special Economic Zone on February 20, 2012. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison for causing unintentional injuries by shooting, but remains free. Unfortunately, he is not the only one.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Ly Srea Kheng and his daughter Ly Seav Minh were arbitrarily arrested and rapidly prosecuted in Phnom Penh, with blatant violations of basic fair-trial rights. They have been involved in a land dispute with the Khun Sear Import Export Company. However, while Kheng and his family have attempted in vain to register their land with the authorities, the complaints against Kheng have been rapidly expedited.

What we have witnessed over the past few days is just another case of judicial harassment and double standards.

Cambodia’s courts have slowly improved over the past few years, but they remain substantially vulnerable to political influence and pressure from the executive. Until Cambodia’s judiciary undergoes appropriate reforms, including the much-needed amendments of the three controversial laws relating to the judiciary adopted in July, the people of Cambodia will not be able to fully enjoy their fundamental human rights.

The Cambodian government must ensure judicial independence and equality before the law, and end impunity. This has been repeatedly stated by the United Nations special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, as he most recently reiterated in a statement on Tuesday.

In a country that professes to be a democracy and uphold the rule of law, judicial double standards are no longer tolerable.

Chak Sopheap is the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, a nonpolitical, independent, nongovernmental organisation that works to promote and protect democracy and respect for human rights throughout Cambodia.