The 70th anniversary of UDHR: What does this mean for civil society in Cambodia?

People were visiting one of human rights booths at the celebration of 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 8 December 2018 at the Olympic Stadium. It was mainly hosted by the Cambodian Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) together with embassies and Cambodian Human Rights Committee. Notably other separate events were also organized by local communities, while many were successfully arranged as planned, some were still experienced obstructions by the local authorities.

As we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December, Human Rights Day, we will doubtless reflect on the many ways that the historic and universal rights enshrined in its provisions line up with recent developments in Cambodia. The UDHR is the mother of countless human rights treaties, resolutions and international laws that have elaborated on its founding principles, and set a global standard for the way in which we, as humans, should live. However, Cambodia, and the world, has seen a pushback against the basic rights and freedoms guaranteed in the Declaration, leaving citizens suffering human rights abuses at the hands of authoritarian states.

The 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a milestone that resonates with the citizens of Cambodia. Its principles form the backbone of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia, the promulgation of which ushered in a new era in which rights and freedoms would be guaranteed. It was a break with a past that had been unrelentingly violent and bereft of civil liberties. Unfortunately, many of the Constitution’s core values have been contradicted in recent years by new and repressive laws and regulations seeking to undermine the very rights that were meant to put an end to the human rights violations of the past.

There are reasons to celebrate on Human Rights Day this year. Human rights defenders and former politicians have been released from prison, although some still have outstanding charges or suspended sentences hanging over them. In particular, Tep Vanny, who was detained for two years for peaceful protest, is finally free. We are surrounded by a thriving international community of institutions, organizations and individuals who champion and raise awareness of human rights. This community has been integral in bringing Cambodian issues to a global audience. The Royal Government has responded to domestic and international calls for pressure to be lifted, and as recently as last week, the government attempted to steps to strengthen democracy and the political space.

However, Cambodia has seen a deterioration of its human rights over the last two years. Progress fought for and won since the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1991 has been reversed, with the core pillars of a democratic state attacked. The main opposition party, at the peak of its popularity, was dissolved by the Supreme Court following a complaint by the Ministry of Interior. Its leaders have been judicially harassed and politically sterilized. Cambodia’s free press, and the blossoming online community of commentators that came with our digital evolution, have been silenced, with media houses perceived as critical to the ruling party forced to close. Citizens no longer feel safe sharing their views on social media. And civil society has been targeted by a slew of newly enacted laws and amended legislation that have made it all too easy for state actors to take legal action against those working for the sustainable development of our country.

This has echoed broader regional trends of severe human rights abuses carried out unapologetically by Southeast Asian regimes. In Vietnam, human rights defenders are treated as “enemies of the state” and handed disproportionately harsh sentences for exercising their fundamental freedoms. In Thailand, defamation or notorious lèse-majesté charges are brought against those who stand up for the rights of others. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs” marches on with rampant impunity for extrajudicial killings. And in Myanmar, where the military is accused of genocide by a UN report, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees are stranded, stateless, at the border, or forced back to the danger of Rakhine state. And further afield, we see totalitarian strongmen curtailing the rights of their citizens, often under the guise of national security or sovereignty; in the USA, Brazil, Poland, China, and many more. Around the world, civic space is closing.

What does this mean for civil society in Cambodia? The continuing restriction of freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of assembly will inevitably mean that non-governmental organizations, community groups and human rights defenders are unable to fully carry out their important work. The Cambodian Center for Human Rights has persevered through these difficult conditions to promote and protect the civil and political rights of Cambodian citizens while civil society has had its activities monitored, events cancelled, staff surveilled, and organizations shut down or forced to deregister. Amid the crackdown, CCHR was even threatened with closure.

The Royal Government of Cambodia must ensure accountability for the widespread human rights abuses happening in Cambodia. This is more crucial than ever considering that all official systems of checks and balances have evaporated in the absence of a viable opposition, any truly independent media, or an unimpeded voice from civil society.

But even as human rights are suppressed, individuals continue to counter restrictions. Human rights defenders carry out their work despite the increasingly restrictive environment, promoting and protecting the rights of all of us. They risk threats, intimidation, arrest and their liberty to prevent violations such as arbitrary killings, unlawful detention, restrictions on fundamental freedoms, abuses in the judicial system, systematic discrimination, land grabbing, mass evictions, forced displacement, statelessness, exclusion from the rewards of development, and destruction of the natural environment and its resources.

Moving forward, Cambodia must honor the legacy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It must only welcome development if it is orchestrated under a human rights framework, in respect of the sustainable development goals. Goal 16, to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels, must be at the forefront of state policy as Cambodia progresses from its dark past to a brighter future. A future in which all Cambodian citizens stand to gain a higher quality of life – if wealth is spread fairly, without corruption; if the judicial system operates independently, without recourse to power; and if the fundamental freedoms of citizens are assured, even if they are exercised in criticism of the government.

On Human Rights Day 2018 we should celebrate our human rights defenders, and work together to ensure that the state upholds the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; a commitment it made long ago. We all continue to #StandUp4HumanRights.

Never Forget Kem Ley

written by CHAK Sopheap, Executive Director, Cambodian Center For Human Rights 

Photo courtesy of CCHR: Kem Ley at one of CCHR’s human rights radio talkshow.

It was a very relaxing and fresh morning in Sihanoukville. I was driving down a road that ran alongside a peaceful beach with my husband. Suddenly, the phone rang, and I picked it up. It was my colleague, which worried me because I knew she would never call me on a Sunday, especially knowing I was on leave for my 5-year wedding anniversary. Her voice was terrified as she quickly said: Mr. Kem Ley was killed. She continued that he was killed at Starmart, near our office. I was not sure how to respond; I asked her if she was sure, holding on to the possibility that she could be wrong and the information she had was fake. I asked her to have our colleagues check the facts immediately.

I then checked Facebook; whenever there is big news, you can be sure Cambodians will share and post about it on Facebook. My heart went numb as I saw all the posts about his killing – the scene where he was shot, and the crowd where people eagerly gathered to see what had happened. I was speechless. I felt like my heart was breaking into pieces. I could not believe what my colleague had told me, and what Facebook was now telling me, with the screen full of posts about Kem Ley — the man who used to serve as our board member, and who never turned his back on us if we needed his advice, even after leaving our board.

In that moment of silence, many questions came to my mind. How would his wife and children, who I met and interacted with, handle the news? How would we, civil society advocates and the public, feel after his killing? This was a shocking moment for many of us who believed that Cambodia was moving away from politically-motivated killings and violence, and that our main concern now was legal and judicial harassment of human rights defenders.

Between 2012 to 2014, Kem Ley was a board member at CCHR. After that, he moved on to continue his social work in the provinces, he often returned as a guest on our radio show. Nobody could speak to the hearts of the people quite like him. He was unique.

Kem Ley is most commonly described as a political analyst. Though accurate, this description feels insufficient to capture the work he did, the people he engaged, the bravery he showed, and the message he sent to Cambodians everywhere. Kem Ley was unshaking in his commitment to the truth. He did not let fear or bias sway him, and criticized both the main parties at time, when he felt it was merited. In the days leading up to his death, it is said that Kem Ley knew his life was in danger, yet still he spoke out against the corruption and injustice that was continuing to impact the lives of ordinary Cambodians.

Kem Ley made social and political issues something that everybody could be part of, a space in which no voice was devalued. He was a true democrat, and he believed that any political party – ruling or opposition – only had value and legitimacy if it listened to the ordinary people, connected with them, and amplified their voices.

But Kem Ley had no desire to become a political leader. He wanted to learn as much as to teach, and he soon returned to his work with the communities in whose hands he saw the future of Cambodia. His final project – the ‘100 Nights Campaign’ – was an extensive exploration into the deep-rooted challenges faced by Cambodian society. He toured the country, staying with rural communities and hearing their stories of vulnerability, displacement and the destruction of their livelihoods as a result of economic land concessions granted to corporations. He only reached ‘Night 19’.

Kem Ley also poured much of his time and energy into working with young people. In 2015, he founded the Young Analysts Group (YAG) – a group of students and young intellectuals who he trained in basic research, journalism and analytical skills. Through inspiring young people, Kem Ley hoped to reinvigorate the country’s social consciousness, and see the next generation lead the way in demanding good governance, equality and social justice. Though Kem Ley’s young mentees were shaken by his death, this has not stopped them. Even beyond the grave, Kem Ley continues to inspire.

Aside from his legacy in the public sphere, Kem Ley also left behind a family. His wife, Bou Rachna, and five sons, one of whom was born four months after his death, fled Cambodia a month after his murder. After a difficult period living in Bangkok, they were finally granted asylum by the Australian authorities. Two years after Kem Ley’s murder, they are still waiting for true justice.

On the second anniversary of his death, I remember Kem Ley, and the values he stood for. He was loved because he always told the truth, and in his memory, we long for the same. Rest in peace, rest in power.

The only long lasting security that safeguards us is the heart of our people” – Kem Ley

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.