Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

As commune elections approach, Cambodian foreign affairs minister promises U.S. full commitment to human rights and democracy

Cambodian Foreign Affairs Minister Prak Sokhonn with his counterpart, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, during a bilateral meeting in Washington. Picture taken May 13, 2022. Posted to the Facebook page of the Foreign Affairs Ministry.
Cambodian Foreign Affairs Minister Prak Sokhonn with his counterpart, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, during a bilateral meeting in Washington. Picture taken May 13, 2022. Posted to the Facebook page of the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

During a meeting with the U. S. Secretary of State, Cambodia’s foreign affairs minister responded to the host country’s concerns of a deteriorating rights situation in the country by stating the Kingdom is fully committed to an inclusive political process and freedom of expression.

On the sideline of the May 13 ASEAN-U.S. Special Summit in Washington D.C.,  Foreign Affairs Minister Prak Sokhonn had a bilateral meeting with the Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. According to a Foreign Affairs Ministry statement released Monday, the two discussed issues ranging from economic cooperation and the Ream naval base controversy to a broader look at Cambodian democracy and human rights.

The minister also highlighted multi-party elections held in Cambodia since the early 1990s, which the ministry claimed have been assessed as free and fair by tens of thousands of local and international observers.

“The existence of hundreds of media establishments, wide social media, the operation of trade unions for workers’ rights protection, and thousands of NGOs and civil societies are working to promote people’s rights and welfare,” Sokhonn stated in the release.

However, both international and local human rights observers have long refuted official statements such as this. Instead, most have said consistently that the rights situation has worsened since the 2017 dissolution of Cambodia’s main opposition group, the former CNRP.

Local human rights advocates told CamboJA they wished to see a wider space for political and human rights. They also called for the release of imprisoned rights activists, such as those being held for allegations related to environmentalism.

Chak Sopheap, the executive director of Cambodia Center for Human Rights, said that, despite its claim, the government has continued to restrict its citizens’ political and civil rights, preventing democracy from flourishing in Cambodia.

She also said opposition members, independent media, human rights activists, trade unions and other dissenting voices continue to be the target of sustained and systematic harassment.

“Peaceful assemblies continue to be interfered with and restricted with an increasing use of force against peaceful protestors by authorities,” she said. “Civil society organizations face regular government surveillance and interference with their daily work.”

Sopheap said as the June 5 commune election approaches, rights observers have reported  incidents undermining free and fair election principles  throughout the country. These include threats against the opposition Candlelight Party by local authorities, as well as the removal of candidate from candidate lists.

Democracy activist Seng Theary arrives at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court dressed as Lady Justice. Picture taken May 3, 2022. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

Am Sam Ath, the operations director of the human rights group Licadho, this could be the first time that the government has expressed its full commitments for human rights and democracy as Cambodia approaches local elections.

“The government always refuses reports by local rights groups and the UN about human rights abuse in Cambodia,” he said. “However, what we want to see is the implementation and improvement [of rights], so we need to monitor this issue.”

He said human rights activists and political activists from the former CNRP have been arrested and charged with crimes regarded as politically motivated, rather than as a matter of normal law enforcement.

Chin Malin, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Justice, said the government was fulfilling its commitment to uphold rights while also maintaining law and order. Malin also leads a governmental group called the Cambodian Human Rights Committee. He said activists and opposition politicians who have been arrested on various speech and assembly-related charges had been acting illegally.

“What has been making civil societies unhappy is that the implementation of this law affects their factions who commit crimes under the image of exercising their rights,” he said. “And this is the law enforcement not a violation of freedom, and they do not have any special immunity.”

This explanation has, for the most part, not convinced the U.S., E.U., or the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia.

In early May, the European Parliament adopted a resolution expressing “its deep concern over the backsliding on human rights in Cambodia in light of the upcoming local elections in June 2022 and national elections in 2023.”

The resolution condemned what it described as an ongoing government crackdown against journalists, activists, and the opposition, which it stated was “orchestrated by Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian Peoples’ Party.”

The resolution also pushed for criminal charges against CNRP members to be dropped and for the party to be permitted to return to politics.

It also urged the European Commission to use all the tools available to it, including “a complete suspension of Cambodia’s ‘Everything But Arms’ (EBA) status and other sanctions,” in case electoral observers find evidence of unfair elections.

There are 17 political parties registered to contest the 11,622 commune council seats in 1,652 communes next month. It is the first commune election since the Supreme Court in November 2017 disbanded the CNRP, a move widely seen as politically motivated.

During his meeting with Blinken, Sokhonn hoped Cambodia’s access to the Generalized Scheme of Preferences (GSP), a trade program of the U.S., will be soon renewed. That would further support economic development, the ministry statement read, particularly for Cambodian workers in the garment, footwear and travel goods manufacturing sector.

The U.S in 2020 suspended the GSP for Cambodia due to what it said was the worsening rights record in the kingdom, particularly after the dissolution of the CNRP. Meanwhile, the E.U. has already suspended 20% of EBA.

On the issue of Ream naval base, the release stated Sokhonn reiterated Cambodia’s firm adherence to its constitution, which does not permit foreign military bases or presences on national soil. He said the renovation of the base serves only to strengthen Cambodian naval capacities to protect its maritime integrity and combat crime.

Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said the foreign minister has made no new or substantiated statements on democracy development and the human rights situation.

“The present pre-commune election climate does not see many differences from the previous election,” he said. “The political activists are more intense, as the parties newly formed by top members of the dissolved CNRP are having a hectic time organizing themselves and fielding candidates across [the country.”

Back in the U.S., four senators have called on Prime Minister Hun Sen to abide by democratic promises as enshrined in the 1991 Paris Agreement.

U.S. Senator Ed Markey, of Massachusetts, is one of them. A member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who represents a large Cambodian community in the city of Lowell, Markey said lawmakers sent an unmistakable message to Hun Sen: “His government must live up to the democratic promise of the Paris Peace Agreements, not turn back the clock on peace.”

“The Paris Peace Accords marked the end of decades of violent conflict in Cambodia and set up a framework which would establish an independent Cambodia,” Markey said. “We urge the Cambodian government to uphold democratic values laid out in that agreement and defend their sovereignty in the region.”