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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 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.