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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.

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Human Rights and Peace Campaign

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.