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Cambodian leaders “committed abuses with impunity”, says US State Department in 2020 human rights report

Family members of former officials of the deposed CNRP political opposition gather in front of the US embassy seeking help to release their relatives, October 2020.CamboJA/Panha Chhorpoan
Family members of former officials of the deposed CNRP political opposition gather in front of the US embassy seeking help to release their relatives, October 2020.CamboJA/Panha Chhorpoan

Cambodian government units committed significant human rights abuses last year, according to the U.S. Department of State in its newly released 2020 human rights report.

This most recent update from the State Department’s annual report on Cambodia details a record of systemic human rights abuses, including those repressing freedom of expression as well as those channeled through the judicial system to dampen political and labour rights.

“A pervasive culture of impunity continued. Government officials, including police, committed abuses with impunity, and in most cases the government took little or no action,” the 35-page report stated of the abuses listed. “Government officials and their family members were generally immune to prosecution.”

The report further noted significant human rights issues last year included the torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment of individuals by state actors, as well as arbitrary interference in the private lives of citizens. According to the State Department, this was paired with the absence of judicial independence.

According to the US report, the Cambodian government has established pervasive electronic media surveillance and serious restrictions on free expression among individuals, the press and the internet as a whole. This surveillance is accompanied by threats of violence, unjustified arrests or prosecutions of journalists, censorship, site blocking and use of criminal libel laws.

Chad Roedemeier, information officer at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh explained the most recent report was completed as a regular task of the federal government.

“The US Congress requires that we produce a full and complete report regarding the status of internationally recognized human rights every year,” Rodemeier said.

Chin Malin, vice president of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee and a Justice Ministry spokesperson, said critical reports are normal and acceptable if based on technical aspects of human rights, pointing out that no country has a perfect record for implementation.

“We recognize the report if based on those aspects, and if there are any loopholes, we will consider improving,” he said. “But if it [the report] is made without the technical basis of human rights and only to politicize human rights issues in order to achieve its regional, geopolitical ambitions and interests, it is unacceptable.”

According to an unnamed NGO cited in the State Department report, as of July of last year there had been 62 cases of violations of freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

Another unnamed human rights NGO recorded a total of 185 assemblies taking place from April 2019 to March 2020. Of those, 101 were related to land rights and 68 to workers’ rights, with the remaining 16 conducted for other reasons.

Chak Sopheap, the executive director at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) said the year 2020 indeed saw the continued deterioration of the human rights situation in the Kingdom, a situation she said was exacerbated by the Covid-19 global pandemic.

“Opposition members, human rights defenders, activists and other dissenting voices continued to be the target of sustained, systematic harassment,” Sopheap said.

She said the government needs to fulfill its international human rights obligations and take corrective measures to ensure full respect for fundamental rights and freedoms in the Kingdom. This is necessary in order to allow for a just and thriving democracy, Sopheap added.

Political analyst Em Sovannara said the Cambodian government should not ignore the State Department report, as it will likely affect the country’s foreign policy.

Sovannara said the US is an influential country for Cambodia, as the Kingdom has been granted access to the Generalized System of Preferences, a beneficial agreement for trade relations.

“This could be a pressure and Cambodian government needs to pay attention, because if such a report frequently appears, it could damage Cambodia’s image in the international arena,” he said. “It also affects trade relations, as Cambodia needs to apply for new (access to the) GSP.”