Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Government praises human rights progress to UN in latest report contested by civil society

Security personnel seize banners from relatives of imprisoned CNRP members at a small demonstration. Protestors had submitted a petition to a UN office in Phnom Penh seeking help in freeing their family members, June 4, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
Security personnel seize banners from relatives of imprisoned CNRP members at a small demonstration. Protestors had submitted a petition to a UN office in Phnom Penh seeking help in freeing their family members, June 4, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

A laudatory human rights report compiled by the Cambodian government for the UN accusing protestors of “unlawful or mercenary” behavior has drawn the ire of rights observers in the country who say the true situation has only grown more dire in recent years.

The government report titled “Cambodia’s Progress in the Field of Human Rights” includes 17 statements describing normative and practical achievements in various areas of human rights and was delivered over a period of four weeks from June 21 to July 14 to the UN Human Rights Council by the Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of Cambodia.

“The delegation emphasized that unlawful or mercenary protests pressuring the judiciary or disrupting public order are not a constitutional exercise of peaceful assembly,” the office of the Permanent Mission said in a July 15 statement describing the report.

Beyond the matter of speech, the statement pointed to government activities in other aspects of human rights such as promoting accessibility to land and housing in a sustainable and socially responsible manner.

However, these claims were rejected by rights observers such as Chak Sopheap, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), who told CamboJA the government’s statement and report failed to reflect the reality of modern Cambodia. Sopheap said the year 2020 and the first half of 2021 in fact saw the continued deterioration of human rights, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Notably, the government unrelentingly curtailed fundamental freedoms, including freedom of assembly,” she said. “Peaceful assemblies were interfered with and restricted, with increased use of force against peaceful protestors by authorities.”

Sopheap said in the first six months of 2021, CCHR recorded no less than 11 instances of the use of unlawful state force at assemblies. Of the 11 assemblies met with police violence, 10 were protests organized by the Friday Women, a group that has led weekly demonstrations calling for the release of imprisoned members of the opposition CNRP. Most members of the Friday Women are either married to or otherwise related to the imprisoned political figures.

Sopheap also said other assemblies are frequently restricted in the Kingdom, with the regular crackdown on the Friday Women being only the most blatant example of the government’s efforts to stifle freedom of assembly.

The government has consistently rejected such criticism, arguing instead that it is enforcing law and order.

Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin, who is a deputy of the government-led Cambodia Human Rights Committee, said any accusations or pretrial detentions related to protests have been made based on a clear legal framework.

“The court found that they were organized and supported by an outlawed group,” Malin said. “However, the government doesn’t care who is behind this. Most importantly, when they commit illegal actions, they have to face the law.”

But Sopheap and the CCHR aren’t the only ones who dismiss that explanation.

Ny Sokha, president of Cambodian rights group Adhoc, said human rights and freedom of political participation are under threat.

“If we look at the real situation, the human rights progress in Cambodia is deteriorating,” he said.

He said the arrests and detentions of politicians, political activists, environmentalists and human rights defenders are without a proper legal basis.

“The government usually reports about the positives to protect its image in the international arena, which is not uncommon,” he said. “And this is not only Cambodian government, but also the governments of ASEAN countries with reports of human rights abuses.”

Political analyst Em Sovannara said the valuation should not be made only by the government itself or human rights groups, but also by the reactions of the international community.

“We should see the reaction from the international community such as the European Union’s EBA [Everything but Arms trade deal] withdrawal because of human rights violations in Cambodia,” Sovannara said. “It’s a sign that Cambodia has violated human rights.”

The European Union, Cambodia’s largest trading partner, withdrew 20 percent of its EBA preferential trade allowances from the kingdom last year, citing serious and systematic violations by Cambodia of principles in four core areas of human and labor rights.

Sok Ratha, a youth activist who has lobbied in the past for protected freedom of expression, respect for human rights and environmental protections, rejected the government charge that protestors are motivated by third parties.

“It is the youth’s will when we see the inactivity of the government in respecting human rights, the environment and freedom in Cambodia,” he said.

Ratha now has been summoned with a court warrant accusing him of involvement in a conspiracy related to the so-called November 9 event, a reference to the announced but ultimately failed return of exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy to Cambodia. He says the court order serves to dampen his political activity and can be used against him at any time.

“I still have an arrest warrant and cannot do anything,” Ratha said. “When the political movement heats up, the court will summon me for clarification, especially regarding the repatriation of the former CNRP leaders.” (Additional Reporting by Sam Sopich)