UN human rights expert pushes Cambodia on repression as civil society struggles

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A UN special rapporteur is urging the Cambodian government to improve its plans for inclusive development, protect freedoms of assembly and expression, and end unjust detentions.

By Skylar Lindsay

Special Rapporteur, Rhona Smith, completed her seventh visit to Cambodia this week. In her final report on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Smith called on the government to improve its human rights record around freedom of assembly, inclusive development, press freedom and unlawful detention.


UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith.
Photo Credit: YouTube/Screengrab

At the same time, Smith lauded the government for taking steps that will allegedly help to open space for civil society. But until a grassroots civil society movement is able to organise and raise these issues themselves, it’s unlikely that the government will follow the rapporteur’s recommendations.

Cambodia struggles to deliver on promises to make development inclusive

A key goal of the visit was to evaluate Cambodia’s plans to follow through on its commitments to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The rapporteur met with representatives of civil society, many of whom highlighted issues of land rights violations and restrictions on freedoms of assembly and expression.

“Peace without justice is unsustainable, development without freedom leaves people behind,” the Smith said.

But according to Smith, the government’s plans to achieve “peace, justice and strong institutions” under the SDGs fall short. Smith also highlighted problems facing specific marginalised groups, such as drug users with dependency issues.

Government-sponsored treatment programs are focused on intensive treatment but the rapporteur raised concerns that programs may be holding patients against their will in order to address substance abuse issues.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Smith adopted careful language around political repression

Smith trod lightly around the issue of worsening political repression in Cambodia, being careful not to jeopardize her crucial working relationship with the regime and her access to the country. But in recent years, Cambodia has become an authoritarian state, banning the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

“The regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen has morphed unconstitutionally into a one-party dictatorship,” said Deputy CNRP leader Mu Sochua, who fled the country in 2017.

Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have led a worsening crackdown on independent media, community organizing efforts, land rights activists, and defenders of human rights.

“People inside Cambodia cannot always speak out about what is happening, so it is important that we follow the news and speak out on their behalf,” said Mu Sochua. “We need the international media to report about what is happening on the ground – they shouldn’t wait until there is blood on the streets to report on what is happening.”

“Working and advocating for the promotion and protection of human rights continues to be equated with being part of, or supporting, the political opposition,” said Smith.

Hun Sen faces has faced criticism from the European Union (EU) and the US. Both are threatening to end Cambodia’s trade privileges over its deteriorating political rights situation.

“A new political culture is needed in Cambodia. One that focuses on the issues of concern to Cambodia and Cambodians rather than on personalities,” Smith said. “This culture should be based on respect for open and constructive debate involving multiple voices and the free expression of ideas, including dissenting ideas.”

Courts in Cambodia continue to harass those who the government sees as threatening its authority. During the Rapporteur’s visit, a Phnom Penh court convicted CNRP leader Sam Rainsy in absentia of insulting the monarchy and violating a lese majeste law, “inciting military personnel to disobedience” and “the demoralization of the army.” The court sentenced him to eight years in prison and imposed a US$4,900 fine. Soon after, a court summoned 25 former CNRP officials for questioning.


Sam Rainsy
Photo Credit: VOA/Wikimedia Commons

Smith also called for the release of Kem Sokha, an opposition leader imprisoned for over 18 months on charges of “colluding with foreigners.” Sokha was arrested and charged before the dissolution of the CNRP. The government wouldn’t allow Smith to visit Sohka.

Efforts to improve the country’s human rights situation depend on increasing space for civil society

Smith welcomed the government’s efforts to engage with civil society but this space will need to be much wider if Cambodia is to follow any of Smith’s recommendations.

Civil society and community organisations endure police surveillance and intimidation. Police and other officials often demand information from civil society groups about their activities and members to which they have no legal right.

CNRP supporters protest in Phnom Penh.
Photo Credit: Heng Reaksmey/Wikimedia Commons

“Officials follow us closely to monitor our activities on the ground. Police question us as well as people who attend our forums and workshops,” said Ny Sokha, a representative of the rights group Adhoc.

While the government has allowed some civil gatherings on the issue of land rights, it denied permits for marches on Human Rights Day, International Women’s Day and International Labour Day. Cambodian workers marched on May 1 this year anyway. Their demands included an increase in the minimum wage from US$182 per month to US$250.

Smith also emphasised the need to improve press freedom in Cambodia and to create space for independent journalism. Two journalists for Radio Free Asia, Uon Chhin and Yeang Socheameta, have been in detention since November 2017 on charges that they continued to work with the news service despite it having closed its Phnom Penh office that September.

Unless Cambodian civil society and grassroots movements are able to claim space and push the rapporteur’s recommendations “from the ground up,” pressure from exiled opposition leaders and foreign governments will continue to flounder.

Mu Sochua said: “We want free and fair elections. We want the release of our leaders and prisoners of conscience. We want Cambodia back on track.”