Cambodia: A No Go Zone for Human Rights Activists

by Kizito Ssekitooleko, CIVICUS Intern, Geneva.

On 28th January 2014, I attended the 18th Session of the United Nations Universal Period Review (UPR) on Cambodia. I also had the privilege of attending two side meetings held before the UPR and organized by World Association for the School as an Instrument of Peace and International PEN and its Partners. Several disturbing revelations on restrictions on the operation of human rights activists came up during the side meetings and the UPR on Cambodia.

In early January, 2014, the authoritarian regime of Cambodia passed a blanket ban on the right to exercise free assembly in Cambodia. Following this ban, all attempts by the citizens of Cambodia as well as civil society organizations to exercise their right to assemble as guaranteed in the Constitution of Cambodia are met with excessive use of force and use of lethal ammunition from police, the military and plain clothed security personnel. For example, on 3rd January, 2014, Cambodia government, using excessive force quelled a peaceful demonstration of garment workers asking a higher wage. In January, 2014, Cambodian security officers also brutally attacked peaceful demonstrators who were protesting against a government decision refusing Mr. Mam Sonando, a strong government critic and human rights defender to launch a new television channel in Phnom Penh. On 26th January, 2014, a planned demonstration organized by some Labour Unions and associations in Cambodia was stopped in advance by the deployment of the military and other security personnel at the site where peaceful demonstrators were to assemble.

The exercise of the right to speech, assembly and association has been further curtailed by the executive controlled judiciary. It is worth noting that the judiciary in Cambodia lacks the required independency to administer justice to all. For example, following the arrest of some of the peaceful demonstrators in January, 2014, the Municipal Court in Phnom Penh denied bail to 23 people. During the side meetings, severe violations of the right to speech, association and assembly were are also reported by human rights activists from Cambodia. Reports of brutal arrests of peaceful protesters, detention of human rights activists, crackdown on private media houses, restrictions on interment freedom and threats on human rights defenders and other NGOs, thereby leading to self-censorship were reported.

In the 18th Session of the UPR, the ban on exercise of the right to assemble and in effect curtailing the freedom of association and speech was condemned by a number of delegates. In particular, the delegation of United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland said “a recent ban on assembly has no basis in Cambodian law”. It further condemned the use of live ammunitions on demonstrators and called on the government of Cambodia to release on bail the 23 people arrested during the peaceful demonstrations. The delegation of United States of America called on the government of Cambodia to “lift the January 4th ban on assembly”. The recent ban on assembly and use of excessive force against peaceful demonstrator was also condemned by delegates from Belgium, Botswana, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Germany, Czech Republic, Sweden, Spain, Ireland, Netherlands, Australia, and Switzerland.

Despite the above concerns raised by several delegates, Cambodia’s delegation led by H.E. Mr. Mak Sambath, Vice Chair of the National Human Rights Committee of Cambodia was un-moved. His Excellency said among others that, CSOs have an important role to play in Cambodia and that they are always welcome to operate in Cambodia but must cooperate with government. He further said that, freedom of expression is at the foundation of democracy in Cambodia as provided under Article 41 of Cambodia’s Constitution.

Regarding reports of brutally quelling peaceful demonstrations by security officers in Cambodia, he said that some of these reports were exaggerated. On the other hand, H.E. Mr. Pol Lin, Secretary of State; Ministry of Interior insisted that the action of security forces were necessary and were intended to maintain stability, protect public and private property, and the rights of other people like children and the sick people who are unable to access schools or hospitals during these demonstrations. He concluded by saying that the right to assembly must be exercised within the confines of Cambodia’s law.

At the end of the UPR Session, the delegation of Cambodia did not indicate when the illegal January, 2014 ban on assembly would be lifted. That is why it is not surprising that a number of recommendations affecting the operation of human rights activists suggested by delegates were not out rightly accepted by the Cambodia delegation. According to the draft report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review on Cambodia and adopted by the said Working Group on 31/1/2014, 34 (thirty four) recommendations were not out rightly accepted but will be examined by Cambodia and provide responses not later than the 26th session of the UN Human Rights Council in June, 2014. Some of the notable recommendations affecting the operation of human rights activists in Cambodia are:

  • Portugal’s recommendation that Cambodia protects opposition party members, journalists and human rights defenders from harassment and arbitrary arrest and lifts all restrictions to peaceful demonstrations.
  • Brazil’s recommendation that Cambodia seeks technical assistance from OHCHR and from the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression on possible ways to adjust the Press Law.
  • Tunisia’s recommendation that Cambodia ensures a climate favourable for activities of human rights defenders, journalists and other civil society actors.
  • Denmark’s recommendation that Cambodia reviews all legal cases against individuals who are detained under criminal or judicial investigation on account of the exercise of their right to freedom of expression as provided in the ICCPR.

Almost similar recommendations were made by the delegations of Austria, Czech Republic, Netherlands, United States of America, Spain and Germany. Cambodia delegation’s decision not to out rightly accept these recommendations and instead deciding to carry out further examination on these important recommendations touching on the right to freedom of expression, speech and assembly clearly shows that for now, Cambodia is a no go zone for human rights activists.

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