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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

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.

Categories
Human Rights and Peace Campaign

Human rights in Cambodia

People march along a road in Kampong Speu’s Samrong Tong district earlier this week in the lead up to International Human Rights Day.

People march along a road in Kampong Speu’s Samrong Tong district earlier this week in the lead up to International Human Rights Day. LICADHO
Thu, 10 December 2015

Amid the high-profile human rights violations and chaos that characterise the current political climate in Cambodia, it may seem somewhat bizarre that we observe a national holiday in honour of International Human Rights Day.

The 67th commemoration of the adoption of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, however, provides a fitting opportunity to reflect on the past, present and, most importantly, the future of human rights in the Kingdom.

Four weeks ago, an arrest warrant was issued for opposition leader Sam Rainsy. This was the highest-profile event in a year that has been marked by multiple restrictions on human rights and fundamental freedoms.

This warrant, if executed, would see Sam Rainsy join Senator Hong Sok Hour and 11 other opposition activists in prison, jailed for their opposition to the ruling regime.

In each of these cases, the arrests, convictions and warrants were politically motivated and executed by a judiciary lacking in independence.

The issuing of the warrant for Sam Rainsy follows the savage beating of two opposition lawmakers outside the National Assembly in October – an incident widely reported to have been orchestrated by the ruling party.

Aside from the political opposition, the royal government of Cambodia has additionally targeted a variety of other groups that it views as opposed to its interests; namely, non-governmental organisations, trade unions, human rights defenders and ordinary people who dare to speak out against government malpractice.

Recently adopted legislation, such as the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations (LANGO), represents a clear attempt to limit freedom of expression and association. In the background, Cambodia’s countless victims of land grabbing struggle to make their voices heard amid the pervasive political instability.

In this oppressive context, one could be forgiven for believing that the human rights movement in Cambodia has floundered.

This year’s International Human Rights Day is devoted to the launch of a yearlong campaign commemorating 50 years since the adoption of the two most important human rights treaties of all: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

While the incidents highlighted above primarily relate to violations of civil and political rights, it is equally important to consider Cambodia’s progress in the realm of economic and social rights.

Asian leaders often claim that the human rights movement unjustly focuses on civil and political rights, while ignoring progress for economic and social rights, such as access to adequate housing, health care and education.

Cambodia’s leaders, however, would struggle to succeed with such an argument. GDP continues to surge and skyscrapers and shopping malls now crowd the Phnom Penh skyline.

Yet these developments cast a long shadow, leaving the vast majority of the Cambodian people – who gain little or no benefit from Cambodian-style crony capitalism – in the dark.

According to the latest figures from the World Bank, 32 per cent (or approximately 0.5 million) of Cambodian children under 5 years old are stunted due to malnutrition, and 82 per cent (12.2 million people) of Cambodia’s people do not have access to piped water supply.

Nevertheless, any serious assessment of Cambodia’s human rights situation must also recognise the significant achievements of the Cambodian human rights movement since the end of the civil war in 1991.

The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), along with partner human rights organisations, has spent many years working to empower citizens to advocate for their rights in every corner of the country. Community outreach, human rights training, and public forums conducted by Cambodia’s human rights organisations have had a deep and lasting impact on the population, as well as the sociopolitical landscape of the Kingdom.

For a country at Cambodia’s stage in development, it is remarkable how many Cambodians are aware of their human rights – and how to stand up for them. The democratising effect of this work cannot be overstated. As a result, the Cambodian people today are not likely to allow their rights to be violated without mounting a response.

The impact can be seen from the protests that regularly fill the streets of Phnom Penh, to the community solidarity in the face of land grabbing in Cambodia’s remote provincial villages; everywhere, Cambodian people are standing up for their rights in the face of injustice.

Typically, Phnom Penh City Hall officials have refused to allow NGOs to conduct a peaceful march through the city for this year’s International Human Rights Day – citing traffic concerns and public security as justifications.

The government, it appears, is increasingly nervous about large gatherings of people in the capital – as also evidenced by the recent cancellation of the Water Festival. Cambodia has one of the youngest populations in the world.

Our young people understand their rights, and they are willing to stand up for them – often at significant personal risk. The government is well aware of this, and feels threatened by this people power. But the government surely also recognises that it can’t continue to repress dissent forever.

The tide of empowered youth is simply too strong, and within the youth lies the hope for a brighter future – one based on equality and respect for human rights.

Right across Cambodia today, determined communities – many of them victims of the government’s attitude towards human rights and development – are holding events to mark International Human Rights Day.

These activists and communities are supported by a vibrant civil society, encompassing many determined and well-organised human rights advocates.

The impact of the Cambodian human rights movement’s work to empower the younger generation will be felt for many years to come.

It would take much, much more than a cancelled march and an NGO law to undo this work. From the perspective of those who wish to curtail human rights, the “damage” has already been done.

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