Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

US Congress passes sanctions bill on human rights

The three Mother Nature activists arrive at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for questioning, June 19, 2021. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan
The three Mother Nature activists arrive at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for questioning, June 19, 2021. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan

A spokesman for the Cambodian government expressed regret over the US Congress’s decision to pass a bill empowering the president to sanction individual officials deemed to be responsible for undermining democracy and committing human rights violations, saying that the bill will negatively impact the relationship between the two nations. The bill will now have to pass through the senate before being approved by the president.

On Tuesday, the US congress passed the “Cambodia Democracy Act of 2021”, which directs the president to impose sanctions against “senior Cambodian government, military, or security forces officials” responsible for human rights violations. The sanctions would also extend to entities controlled or owned by such individuals, including the blocking of assets and restricting the entry of sanctioned individuals into the United States.

“This bill is the core of an obstacle to cooperation between both nations, even the bilateral or multilateral [relations] in ASEAN, and that is very regrettable,” wrote government spokesman Phay Siphan on his Facebook on Wednesday.

He said that US sanctions against individual government officials are based on unjust accusations that do not reflect the facts, and stressed that Cambodia is making efforts to build the rule of law, which is its commitment to a democratic Cambodian society.

However, the US Congress noted that the President Joe Biden may waive the sanctions with respect to a person or entity if it is in the United States’  national interest.

“The President may suspend the sanctions if Cambodia makes meaningful progress toward ending government efforts to undermine democracy or committing human rights violations,” it said.

Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin told CamboJA that the bill was political in nature, having been proposed by a few congressmen who he claimed have a relationship with the former outlawed opposition party and which was biased against the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

“No country is perfect in regards to human rights issues, some just have less or more …  and even the United States has violated human rights considerably,” he said.

“I think the US president will consider the interests of America as a whole rather than the political gains of those few congressmen,” he said.

He pointed out that in the current situation, the United States needs Cambodia to achieve its geopolitical influence in Southeast Asia. Malin added that whether or not the bill passed into law, Cambodia remains an independent and sovereign nation.

US embassy in Phnom Penh spokesman Chad Roedemeier referred media enquiries to the members of Congress who had sponsored the bill.

“The United States remains concerned about eroding human rights and the weakening of democratic institutions in Cambodia,” he said.

Political analyst Seng Sary said that the bill has a long process ahead of it, and that the Cambodian government should consider easing the political atmosphere by releasing prisoners of conscience and environmental activists as well as former opposition leader Kem Sokha to avoid sanctions.

Sary also called for prompt bilateral talks between Cambodia and the US to come to a mutual understanding to show Cambodia’s adhesion to the constitution and Paris Peace Agreement.

“I think if the government carries out these measures, the bill will be halted by the Senate,” he said.

Mu Sochau, former vice-president of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party, said that the passage of the bill would render justice to victims of human rights violations.

“We also recognize the remarkable efforts of all Cambodian-Americans who have worked hard to provide information to members of their communities about the bill and continue to mobilize support for President Biden to sign it into law,” she said via email.

Sochua said that the U.S. continues to maintain its position to see Cambodia conduct its business as an independent and neutral country. If the relations with the US deteriorate, she claimed, it is for Cambodia to bear the consequences of self-imposed isolation. (Additional reporting by Chea Sokny)