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UN Special Rapporteur calls for Cambodia to respect democracy, human rights

UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia Vitit Muntarbhorn gives a press conference in Phnom Penh, August 26, 2022. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia Vitit Muntarbhorn gives a press conference in Phnom Penh, August 26, 2022. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Vitit Muntarbhorn, on Friday ended his visit to the country by calling on the government to open up the political space and implement democratic reforms.

“Since 2017 when the main opposition party was disbanded unjustly by judicial order, the country has been under single-party rule, with all seats of the National Assembly in the hands of that monopoly,” he said, during his final press conference.

“This has led to systemic control by the powers-that-be, leading to political and other distortions undermining the call for a pluralistic democracy,”  Mr. Muntarbhorn added.

During his trip to Cambodia between August 15 and 26, the rapporteur met Prime Minister Hun Sen, opposition leader Kem Sokha, representatives of the Candlelight Party, trade unionists and others.

He found that there were serious human rights violations, restrictions on press freedom, and a decline in the democratic and civic space.

He criticized the recent commune elections, saying: “Regrettably, various negative incidents were evident in the process leading up to the Commune elections and these included the delisting of several candidates under questionable circumstances.”

Mr. Muntarbhorn added that ahead of national elections next year, there were several things that needed to be done, including employing independent observers. He also said it was vital freedom of expression and peaceful assembly be allowed in the run-up to, during, and after the vote.

 He criticized the prosecution of several key opposition figures, saying: “There is the presence of mass trials of members of the political opposition taking place, even during the visit of the SR (special rapporteur).”

“Key leaders of the opposition, who had been charged and convicted on multiple occasions, were/are still subject to further prosecutions for alleged offences of a political nature which are seen as spurious internationally,” he continued.

He also touched on other problems in Cambodia including the prevalence of cybercrime, human trafficking, and exploitation. In addition, has expressed concern over land evictions and institutions like prisons and youth rehabilitation centers.

“Many human rights and environmental defenders, media and related organisations voiced concern about the shrinking or shrunken civic and political space. Many complained of intimidation and harassment by the authorities,” he said.

UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia Vitit Muntarbhorn gives a press conference in Phnom Penh, August 26, 2022. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

The envoy urged the government to implement a ten-point plan to address the issues and said he’d present the findings from his visit at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in October.

Asked about the rapporteur’s remarks, Chin Malin, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Justice and vice president of the government’s Cambodian Human Rights Committee, said Mr. Muntarbhorn had the right to express his views but noted that Cambodia follows its own laws.

“Freedoms and democratic spaces are always open for civil society groups and institutions that comply with the laws of Cambodia,” he said. “Civil society groups that have broken those laws – they will face the law.”

“We agree that no country is perfect when it comes to human rights,” he said, adding that the government will look over the rapporteur’s recommendations.

“If the recommendations are against Cambodia’s laws, like requiring Cambodia to drop all charges and release activists in opposition to the law and interfere with the courts, we cannot implement them,” Mr. Malin said.

“We care about the human rights interest of Cambodian people, not the interests of a special rapporteur or individual person,” he said.

Am Sam Ath, operation director at rights group Licadho, said that it was expected that the government would try to defend itself, but that if it ignores the rapporteur’s suggestions it will face more international criticism, which will hurt the economy.

“If we improve on negative points by strengthening and promoting human rights, and being more democratic, Cambodia will get more benefits,” he said.