Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

UN chief’s report addresses intimidation of NGOs

Motorbikes pass outside the United Nation's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Phnom Penh on September 29. Panha Chhorpoan

As part of his annual address to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, UN Secretary-General António Guterres on September 30 will present a report calling on member states including Cambodia to educate public servants on reprisals and intimidation, noting that local officials had previously harassed groups for engaging with the UN.

The UN chief’s report to the council will highlight instances of reprisals and “intimidation made by security officials against those who engaged with the United Nations,” according to a statement from Garga Mahmoud, communication and information officer at Cambodia’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

The report on intimidation says that in August 2019, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Rohna Smith, had “received many reports of local police coming uninvited to events, training sessions or meetings, taking photographs, enquiring about organizers and the agenda or demanding information on participants.”

“OHCHR in Cambodia corroborated reports of multiple incidents of police interference in United Nations activities and, in February 2020, the High Commissioner noted alleged intimidation impeding human rights organizations’ capacity to monitor and report, including to the Human Rights Council,” Guterres’ report says.

Mahmoud elaborated on some of these cases, saying in the statement that police officers had arrived at a human rights training course in Kampong Thom province organized by Cambodia’s OHCHR in August 2019, demanding to see the agenda and list of participants, and attempting to photograph attendees. 

In another case in November 2019, prior to a meeting in Preah Sihanouk province between a civil society group and UN employees, the police demanded a permit from the organization before the meeting was allowed to proceed. Although the gathering went ahead after OHCHR intervened, police later demanded details of the activities and the names of the NGO members who had participated.

“Secretary-General Guterres encourages states to publicly express unequivocal support for the right of all to unhindered access to and communication with international bodies,” the OHCHR statement said. “And he also calls Member States to sensitize public servants and other State actors on reprisals and intimidation, including by providing training and issuing internal guidance.”

Chin Malin, vice president of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, said that the latest report from the UN secretary-general was just another one-sided conclusion that does not reflect the facts of human rights in Cambodia.

“They do not research or investigate whether police took the measures against those civil society groups because they were not carrying out the law or were not being professional,” he said.

“Sometimes, they [NGOs] have violated the law in Cambodia, especially the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations.”

Kompong Thom Provincial Governor Sok Lou on September 29 rejected the allegations made in the UN report that police officials had pressured and intimidated participants during the human rights training course last year.

“There is no instance of intimidation against those who have carried out legal activities, and we are happy that the [NGOs] are coming to train people,” he said.

“They have just raised it in their report, but there was no such case of intimidation against them,” Lou said.

He said the Interior Ministry had instructed authorities to work with local civil society organizations to help facilitate their meetings according to the law, and that there was no need for the groups to provide details on their training programs to local authorities.

Preah Sihanouk Provincial Police Chief Chuon Narin said that the UN’s report did not reflect the facts of the situation on the ground in Cambodia.

“Our police have never engaged in [intimidating acts] as they said in that case,” he said. “Our forces have a duty to protect the safety of the people. I absolutely will not condone that [alleged] activity.”

Soeng Senkaruna, senior investigator at rights group Adhoc, said he supported the UN’s report  regarding the suppression of the right of assembly in Cambodia, saying that Adhoc had also faced challenges in organizing some events.

“Revealing that report should remind the government to acknowledge the facts of the situation, rather than deny the report and the recommendations by the United Nations,” he said, adding that the government should not inhibit the activities of civil society groups and unions who are working to defend human rights.

“We know that Cambodian people are suffering due to restrictions of their rights to participate in politics, and to participate in civil society groups,” Senkaruna said.