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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

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.

Categories
Human Rights and Peace Campaign Migration

An affront to human rights

An affront to human rights

(published on analysis and op-ed of the Phnom Penh Post, 1st October 2014)

Protesters gather in front of the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh on Friday

Protesters gather in front of the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh on Friday before the signing of a controversial refugee deal between the countries. Heng Chivoan
Wed, 1 October 2014

As recently as January, Australia denounced Cambodia for its poor human rights record at a United Nations human rights hearing. Now, just eight months later, Australia has turned a blind eye to this record by signing a refugee deal with Cambodia that raises serious human rights concerns.

As the world faces an unprecedented number of refugees, Australia is dodging its responsibility to provide a safe and dignified resettlement process despite its high capacity to do so. Instead, it has entered into an agreement to “offload” refugees arriving in Australia to Cambodia, a country plagued by human rights abuses. Australia will provide Cambodia an additional $35 million in aid in exchange for the deal, but it cannot be guaranteed that this money will reach those that need it most.

While both Australia and Cambodia are signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the rights of refugees in both countries are regularly violated. Australia has become increasingly irresponsible regarding its treatment of refugees. Mandatory detention, offshore processing and a refusal to settle those found to be genuine refugees have demonstrated Canberra’s policy of deterrence. The deal with Cambodia fits perfectly within this policy and contradicts the spirit of the Refugee Convention.

Cambodia also has a poor record regarding the treatment of refugees. In December 2009, Cambodia breached a fundamental element of the Refugee Convention, non-refoulement – a principle which requires signatories to not return or expel refugees to the persecuting state – by returning 20 Muslim Uighurs fleeing ethnic violence to China. Others who migrate here, including Khmer Krom, ethnic Khmer from South Vietnam entitled to citizenship, struggle to access their rights in practice. This demonstrates the problems of the immigration process and Cambodia’s failure to support those seeking asylum.

Aside from violations against refugees and breaches of the Refugee Convention, Cambodia is facing countless other human rights issues. Impunity is rampant, freedom of expression is threatened, minorities are discriminated against and land rights are ignored. Corruption is endemic and politically motivated attacks are common. This is compounded by the fact that 20.5 per cent of the population lives in poverty, and many others earn only fractionally more, according to Where Have All the Poor Gone?, a 2013 World Bank report. Cambodia is clearly an unacceptable place for a wealthy country to offload refugees, particularly as it cannot guarantee the rights of arriving refugees.

The “pilot program” by which Cambodia will initially accept only four to five refugees signifies that the country is aware of its limited capacity. It is not clear who will monitor this pilot program or assess whether the situation for refugees is appropriate. It is clear that if the program is to be monitored by Cambodia and/or Australia alone, it will be subject to biased assessment and lack international scrutiny.

Recent media reports suggest that refugees will be forced to relocate outside of Phnom Penh once they have mastered basic Khmer. They will receive 12 months of guaranteed assistance once relocated, but it is likely that this will be inadequate considering the trauma that many refugees have endured and the time required to find meaningful employment. This is despite the Refugee Convention stipulating that refugees have “the right to choose their place of residence and to move freely within its territory”.

While 87 per cent of the world’s refugees are already hosted by developing countries, Australia is circumventing its international obligations. Refugees arriving on Australian shores have been given a choice to either resettle in Cambodia or to remain on Nauru for a further five years. And it has been made clear that they will never resettle in Australia. This is having a devastating impact on already traumatised refugees; five refugees on Nauru have sewn their mouths closed and two have attempted suicide since receiving the news. For those who are resettled in Cambodia, the series of violations is set to continue.

Australia and Cambodia both have a duty to respect their obligations, not only under the Refugee Convention but other human rights conventions, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The deal will in all likelihood result in breaches of these international human rights standards and should be subject to public scrutiny. The rights and wellbeing of the refugees involved should be the prime consideration for both countries.

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