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Restore Civic, Political Space and Release Kem Sokha, UN Member States Urge Cambodia

A screenshot of UN member states at the UN Human Rights Council’s universal periodic review of Cambodia on May 8, 2024.
A screenshot of UN member states at the UN Human Rights Council’s universal periodic review of Cambodia on May 8, 2024.

Some United Nations member states called on the Cambodian government to restore civic and political space and the right to freedom of expression, with Cambodian officials responding that civilians are allowed to exercise their right to “public opinion with no limitations”.

On Wednesday, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva conducted the 46th Universal Periodic Review of Cambodia, which lasted three hours. The US urged Cambodia to release those “unjustly detained for exercising their human rights and fundamental freedoms”, including former opposition leader Kem Sokha, and Cambodian-American lawyer Seng Theary, who was found guilty of plotting and inciting to overthrow the government.

“We urge Cambodia to fully respect civil and political rights and to restore multiparty democracy,” said US delegate Kaitlin Sandin.

She suggested that Cambodia repeal the amendments to the election law, which allegedly restricted political participation and freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. Cambodia should also ensure pending draft laws are revised to comply with its international human rights obligations before they are passed. These include the laws on cybercrime, cybersecurity, and access to information, Sandin cited.

In response, Keo Sothie, head of delegation and vice-chair of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, told the UN that Cambodia is strongly committed to promote genuine partnership with civil society organizations in all aspects of social development, and supported the activities of social activists, trade unionists, and human rights defenders.

“When activities become criminal and threaten social order and impede public interests, perpetrators must be held accountable,” he said, adding that every Cambodian is entitled to their rights and freedom. But this, he added, comes with a responsibility to ensure that those actions are in accordance with the law. 

“Cambodia firmly believes in a liberal and multiparty democratic system, which is enshrined in our constitution,” Sothie said, noting that the 2023 general election was conducted in a “free, fair, peaceful and transparent manner”, with high voter turnout of 84.5%.  

“Our constitution has these rights enshrined under Article 41, guaranteeing the right to freedom of expression,” Sothie said.

More than 2,000 media outlets and 10,000 journalists, including those critical of the government have been “operating freely” in analog and digital formats “without censorship in 2023”, he said.

Cambodia has more than 11 million registered social media accounts, representing 65% of the population, allowing them to access a diverse range of information, as well as voice their opinion freely without limit, Sothie said.

A screenshot of Keo Sothie (center), head of delegation and vice-chair of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, addresses UN member states during the UN Human Rights Council’s universal periodic review on May 8, 2024.

He also responded to comments by the US, United Kingdom, Thailand, Mexico and Brazil, which urged the Cambodian government to investigate and prosecute traffickers relating to online scam operations.

“The government takes this matter seriously and we hope that our draft law on cybersecurity will enable us to further combat such crimes.”

“The realization of human rights is a continuous journey. We are always committed to achieving better outcomes for people and we understand the need to continue to earn political trust from our people and the world,” he continued.

NGO rights group Adhoc president Ny Sokha echoed the sentiments of the international community which raised Cambodia’s restricted civic space and human rights violation, and the right to participate in politics, although the government said those concerns have been addressed by the laws. 

“I think what the stakeholders have raised will affect the reputation of the government, and it will make investors of some countries not want to invest in our country. They might be afraid [to invest in Cambodia],” he said. “If we still do not restore human rights, the government will more or less encounter obstacles in future.”

Outgoing US ambassador Patrick Murphy, who met with the Prime Minister Hun Manet on May 7, has consistently urged Cambodian authorities to reopen “diminished political, civic and media space” in the country, Wesley Holzer, public diplomacy officer of the US embassy in Cambodia, said via email.

“He has communicated an enduring US commitment to the Cambodian people and their aspirations for a prosperous, democratic, and independent country, where all voices are heard and respected.”

“He has also called for high standards for labor rights, respect for the freedom of association, and an electoral process in which all Cambodians can enjoy their political rights,” Wesley added.

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