Shrinking Civic Space in Cambodia – local manifestations of the global crackdown on civil society (Part Two)

Civil society’s ability to act rests on the realization of three fundamental rights: the right to freedom of association, the right to peaceful assembly and the right to freedom of expression. A recent report from CIVICUS found that roughly 85% of the world’s population lives in countries where those rights faced serious challenges in the year 2016.[1] The types of restriction on these fundamental rights vary greatly.

Unfortunately Cambodia is not an exception to the global trend of shrinking civic spaces. On the contrary, it is one of the countries in south-east Asia that is experiencing a severe backlash against human rights. The right to state one’s opinion, to question government decisions, and to defend one’s rights without being threatened have never been fully realized in Cambodia, but over the last 18 months violations of international human rights law and the crackdown on civil society have reached extremely worrying levels. In 2016, a university student was sentenced to 18 months in prison because of a Facebook post on his page that called to start a “color revolution;” activists have been arbitrarily detained for months; opposition politicians are subject to legal harassment; and NGOs are threatened with being suspended or shut down due to allegedly violating “political neutrality.”[2]  Welcome to Cambodia, in the year 2017, where these are only a few examples of the shrinking civic spaces phenomenon percolating in the country. The International Center for Not-for-profit Law (“ICNL”) has assessed Cambodia’s legal environment as ‘not enabling’[3] for civil society, creating additional barriers with complicated registration requirements.

Just like many other countries, Cambodia’s legislature has adopted new, restrictive laws, like the Law on Associations and NGOs (the “LANGO”), that violate the right to association and the ability of civil society to function without fear. Under the LANGO, NGOs and associations are required to be registered. Unregistered NGOs and associations are not allowed to carry out any activities in the country. This constitutes not only a restriction of freedom of association and expression, it also violates international best practices and standards which require that registration should be voluntary. Further, even if organizations are registered under the LANGO, they are still required to either inform or ask permission in advance from local authorities, if they are conducting activities in a province other than where they are registered. Their meetings are often monitored by local authorities and police officers, and there are growing reports of harassment, threats, and even arrests of activists on missions in the provinces.[4]

Another method to silence and immobilize civil society tends to be in the form of judicial harassment. Recent examples of judicial harassment include the arrest of Areng Valley activists objecting to the Areng hydroelectric dam project, and Mother Nature activists who were protesting sand dredging activities in Koh Kong. Probably the most prominent case of detained human rights defenders is the case of the FreeThe5KH detainees, five Cambodian human rights defenders and senior staff members of the Cambodian NGO Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (“ADHOC”), who collectively worked on the case of a woman alleged to have had an extra-marital relationship with a deputy leader of the leading opposition party in Cambodia. All five were detained on charges of bribery of a witness and spent over a year in pre-trial detention, despite a lack of any credible evidence against them, before being released on 29 June 2017. The case of the FreeThe5KH received considerable international attention. In November 2016, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruled their detention to be ‘arbitrary’ and urged the Royal Government of Cambodia (“RGC”) to immediately release the five.[5]

Social media plays an important role as an instrument used by the government to nip public protest against government actions in the bud. The government not only controls the majority of Khmer language media, it also monitors civil society actions online very closely, enabled by the repressive new Telecommunications Law. The law gives the government the power to monitor and prosecute virtual communication that threatens national security.[6] The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (“CCHR”) conducted an analysis of the situation of internet freedom and digital rights in Cambodia after the Telecommunications Law came into force. The analysis includes case studies of seven people who have been arrested for their political comments online since August 2015.[7] In addition, the study reveals that “at least 23 individuals have been publicly threatened since August 2015 on the basis of social media comments.”[8] In the digital age, when social media has become one of the most important portals for political and public debates, these measures are used by state agencies as a tool to outlaw their critics.

It has become life-threatening to be a civil society activist in Cambodia. At least seven land activists have been killed since 2010.[9] 2016 saw violent attacks on and arrests of opposition leaders and civil society activists. Prominent political commentator Kem Ley was shot dead at a convenience store on 10 July 2017, which left Cambodian civil society in shock and fear. Oeuth Ang was convicted in March 2017 of premeditated murder and sentenced to life in prison. International and national civil society condemned the lack of transparency in the investigation of Dr. Kem Ley’s death, the sloppiness of the trial proceedings, and the failure to fully investigate the motive, potential accomplices and the circumstances of the shooting.[10] In two separate civil society statements, organizations expressed serious concerns about the adequacy of the criminal process and whether all those involved have been identified and brought to justice.[11] Another case was the attack on Am Sam Ath and Chan Puthisak at the World Habitat Day in March 2016. The monitoring manager of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (“LICADHO”) tried to peacefully resolve the violent attack of para-police officers on land activist Chan Puthisak and consequently got targeted himself for simply doing his job as a human rights monitor at an otherwise peaceful protest.[12]

Moving forward with combating shrinking civic spaces in Cambodia

The political climate in the run-up to the 2017 and 2018 elections that have been overshadowing all recent political developments for the past months, has been tense. However, it is these difficult times that illustrate the importance of the protection of civil and political rights of all citizens to ensure fair and free elections that reflect the will of the Cambodian people.

There must be better communication across different organizations, sectors and countries. Civil society is highly fragmented in itself due to different organizational goals, approaches and beliefs which often prevent it from effectively working together. It needs to be understood though, that the shrinking civic spaces phenomenon will be the major challenge facing all civil society organisations in the future, no matter what their fundamental beliefs or goals. If there is no push back against harmful regulations that stop CSOs from working, there won’t be room for effective human rights work of any kind. The most important thing to do for all civil society organizations and society itself is to not stop fighting this threatening trend and to develop methods to regain and create new civic spaces. It is of crucial importance to the future of civil society to not give in, to adjust, learn and evolve together. In many restrictive environments CSOs self-censor and refrain from doing work that could potentially make them a target of the authorities. While this is an understandable and sometimes necessary form of self-preservation to protect staff, partners and beneficiaries, it is also a fast-track to the disappearance of civil society. Cambodia’s civil society has always been strident and has not allowed itself to be silenced. There is an urgent need for civil society to find new approaches and measures that will force the Cambodian authorities to loosen their grip around the neck of civil society actors and to turn its focus back to what really counts – the interests of the Cambodian people.

Charis Uster, CCHR International Intern

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[1] Civicus (n16)

[2] Niem Chheng, ‘Student gets 18 months for post’, (The Phnom Penh Post, 16 March 2016), Available at: http://bit.ly/1Tsmp2e

[3] The International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law, ‘Civic Freedom Monitor: Cambodia’, (1 November 2016). Available at: http://bit.ly/1890Q4H

[4] Morana Krajnovic, ‘Cambodia’s shrinking space for civil society and the role of donors’, (20 January 2016). Available at: http://bit.ly/1T542mS

[5] OHCHR, ‘Cambodia: UN experts call for the immediate release of five human rights defenders’, (press release, 25 January 2017). Available at: http://bit.ly/2k2bdlH

[6] LICADHO, ‘Cambodia’s Law on Telecommunications – A Legal Analysis’, (Briefing Paper, March 2016). Available at: http://bit.ly/2aOdWZ

[7] Cambodian Center for Human Rights, ‘Digital Wrongs? An Overview of the Situation of Digital Rights in Cambodia’, (CCHR Briefing Note, February 2016). Available at: http://bit.ly/2rKdgMx

[8] Cambodian Center for Human Rights (n7)

[9] Global Witness, ‘On Dangerous Ground’, (Report, 20 June 2016). Available at: http://bit.ly/2ldHLas

[10] Joint civil society statement, ‘After Conviction, Civil Society Demands Independent Inquiry into Murder of Kem Ley’, ( 23 March 2017). Available at: http://bit.ly/2qVDbQc

[11] Joint civil society statement (n10) and Amnesty International, ‘Cambodia: Significant Questions Remain After Guilty Verdict in Kem Ley Trial’, (23 March 2017). Available at: http://bit.ly/2sCp9Ep

[12] Joint Civil Society Statement, ‘World Habitat Day Marred by Brutal Beatings of Human Rights Defenders’, (10 October, 2016). Available at: http://bit.ly/2rPjGK6

Shrinking Civic Space in Cambodia – local manifestations of the global crackdown on civil society (Part One)

This is the first in a series of blog posts on the theme of “Shrinking Civic Space in Cambodia.” The series will provide analysis and background information about how and why civil society space is being restricted all over the world, including in Cambodia. “Shrinking Civic Space in Cambodia – local manifestations of the global crackdown on civil societyis the introductory article to the blog series. Part One of the article gives an overview of the global phenomenon of shrinking civic spaces and international civil society, while Part Two offers an assessment of the legal environment and the national context of shrinking spaces for civil society in the Kingdom of Cambodia.

Further articles will address various human rights topics that are of relevance in Cambodia’s current political climate and will illustrate how civil society is being threatened. Finally the series will suggest new ways forward on how to regain and create new civic space and to ensure the future of a free Cambodian civil society.

We hope the blog will inform readers and encourage members of civil society to share their experiences and best practices on the prevention of shrinking civic spaces. We are always looking for individuals and writers to contribute to the Sithi Blog and/or to the “shrinking civic spaces” blog series. You can reach us via email at info@cchrcambodia.org.

Contested and under Pressure: Space for Civil Society

Recent crackdowns on civic space across the globe have been severe and continue to violate human rights, in particular the fundamental freedoms of the right to association, the right to peaceful assembly and the right to freedom of expression. In Honduras, at least 120 environmental activists have been murdered since 2010.[1] In India, Greenpeace and other non-governmental organizations (“NGOs”) have been denied entry to continue their work.[2] Amnesty reports have claimed there have been disappearances of activists in Egyptian prisons, others being tortured, and thousands of documented arrests during recent opposition protests in Russia.[3] These shocking restrictions of fundamental freedoms increasingly fill up newspapers on a global scale. The space for civil society actors (“CSAs”) who raise their voices against governments, stand up for democratic values and human rights, and protest openly against social injustice, discrimination, land grabbing, environmental degradation in the name of big business and other human rights violations is shrinking drastically all over the world.[4]

Regardless of the nature of the political system or regime, governments in various countries are tightening the grip around the neck of civil society organizations (“CSOs”) and the space for civil society actions. Over the past two years, more than 60 countries have passed or drafted laws that limit the activities of non-governmental and civil society organizations. 96 countries have taken steps to inhibit NGOs from operating at full capacity.[5] Taking measures to control civil society actors is an old, familiar game played by governments that has been anxiously noted and monitored for decades. Shockingly, there now seems to be an increase in the severity and openness with which authorities are attempting to limit people’s rights.

2015 was the deadliest year for environmental activists ever recorded and the trend did not regress in 2016.[6] During this time, Forum-Asia documented 324 violations and abuses against human rights defenders (“HRDs”) in the region and hundreds of human rights activists received threats from government agencies, non-state actors or other individuals.[7]

Civil society and its role in upholding democratic values around the globe

But what does ”civil society” actually mean and why is it so important for individual states and the international community as a whole to have an active and vital civil society?

“Civil Society” is a term that is often carelessly thrown around by the media, government authorities and even civil society itself. To properly discuss civil society, its role in global and national politics and also the shrinking civic space phenomenon, it is necessary to take a closer look at the term “civil society.” Academically speaking, it has proven difficult to develop a standard definition of civil society that applies to all different settings. This is due to the complexity of civil society and the many intersections it has with the economy, the state and institutions like the family or the media.[8] In order to adequately define the meaning of ‘civil society’, important unifying criteria which shed light on this complex term and the variety of forms taken by civil society need to be examined. CSOs are self-organized, independent from state power, and have a non-profit based motivation, for example, the protection of certain norms, values and rights of the people. Civil society is not an equivalent to the more general term ‘society.’ Indeed, a society includes institutions that exceed the definition of civil society.[9] Civil society is also not coextensive with the non-profit sector, but the third sector and civil society may often overlap . It is often said that civil society does not include the economic market and its participants, although some institutions, like for example the media, while essentially based on economic rules, have significant civil society elements and therefore can not be clearly identified as one or the other.[10]

Regardless of differences in detailed definitions, politicians, academics and other experts agree that the work of civil society plays an incredibly important part in shaping the political agenda of the international community as well as the agenda of national governments. CSOs also play an important part in scrutinizing government policy. Civil society has the power to give the public, who may otherwise have been largely or completely excluded, an amplified voice at a global, national and regional level, playing a large role in protecting marginalized groups and individuals subject to discrimination. Without the courage and stamina of civil society organizations around the globe, the world would not be the same. For example, civil society played a significant role in the establishment of the international criminal justice system.[11] CSOs have successfully promoted new environmental agreements, for example the recent Paris Climate Agreement, and have greatly strengthened women’s rights and LGBTIQ rights across the globe, as well as, to give another example, lobbied for important arms control and disarmament measures.[12]

Indeed, the increased global impact of civil society can be considered one of the most significant social developments of modern history. However, even though civil society could chalk up multiple victories – and perhaps even in reaction to the growing influence of civil society groups – in recent years there has been a change in perspective on NGOs that can be noted not only from governments but also from academics and in public opinion. Questions about the effectiveness and legitimacy of many organizations have been presented by governments, funders and also citizens.[13] In particular, the question of western hegemony has recently dominated international debates. Critics observe that prevailing conceptions of poverty and development are often shaped by those who have never really experienced their challenges.[14] The voices of those who worry that global civil society is dominated by the ideas and values of relatively rich countries of the global north, purveyed by powerful international NGOs, have become louder over recent years. Many CSOs reacted to those serious accusations by changing their approaches and structures to adopt more local and regional strategies, turning away from international, “top-down” approaches.

Despite different views about the legitimacy of many international NGOs, it is unambiguous that the steady concentration of power in the hands of only state governments, that seemed to be inevitable not so long ago, has been replaced by a system of shared power and shared responsibilities between multiple sectors and actors. At least up until now.

The Role of Governments in the Protection of Civic Space and Human Rights

CIVICUS, an organization which supports and monitors the rights of civil society worldwide, found restrictions on the right to freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and freedom of association in 109 countries worldwide in 2016.[15] The question that arises when looking at the current situation for civil society all over the world is: why now? What has changed that governments feel so threatened by civil society that they create such hostile environments?

While approaches and methods vary from country to country, the reasons for state oppression remain broadly the same. First, governments have felt the power of civil society in recent years all around the world: the Arab spring, color revolutions in eastern Europe, and the rise of right wing grass roots groups. Many governments, especially in transitioning and rapidly developing countries, dread the loss of their political power and aim to maintain the status quo, hence they target civil society groups most when these two goals seem to be threatened.[16] Civil society can give or take away legitimacy on policy decisions, which may result in fear from government institutions. Instead of seeing civil society as a valuable resource to provide governments with expertise and a bridge between the government and the people, governments and economic elites have started viewing civil society as a threat that needs to be controlled and even eliminated.

Second, governments cite concerns about the interference of foreign interests in domestic affairs through civil society organizations. The keyword commonly used by governments to justify their restrictive measures is “sovereignty,” arguing that one state does not have the right to interfere with the internal affairs of another state. So once a national protest or a movement develops and starts to become forceful, it is often shut down and delegitimized by being accused of being corrupted by foreign interests, even when evidence to support such claims is scarce. Some laws regulating NGOs cut off the supply of money from international sources for civil society making the work of many NGOs nearly impossible, like for example in Russia or Israel.[17]

The third common reason for shrinking spaces is vigorous counter-terrorism policies. While fighting terrorism is a legitimate goal, the problem is that states continue to disrespect human rights in the name of security. Laws are over-inclusive, and, besides often being counter-productive in the fight against terrorism, are being misused to restrict civil society or unintentionally affect civil society’s space to act. In extreme cases, laws disguised as anti-terror measures may have the underlying purpose of silencing the political opposition and civil society by accusing them of terrorism.

In many countries a lack of awareness of the rights of civil society and their democratic functions contributes to the problem. Criticism of governments and state authorities may be perceived as unpatriotic and a threat to the political order and national security by segments of local populations. This bias is exploited by repressive governments who wish to de-legitimize the work of civil society. As a result, CSOs may be exposed to intimidation and threats within their own communities.[18] In highly polarized societies, this stigmatization can have the effect of prejudicing people with different political or personal views against HRDs.[19]

If civil society organizations are kept from holding government to account, and if NGOs and other CSOs cannot stand up for individuals and marginalized groups, many people will face major threats to their livelihoods and safety, while governments will increasingly be able to act unchecked by independent scrutiny. Part two of this article will show how Cambodian CSAs and citizens are struggling under the pressure of the shrinking civic spaces phenomenon and the particular restrictions they are facing.

Charis Uster, CCHR International Intern

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[1] Global Witness, ‘Honduras: The deadliest country in the world for environmental activism in the world’ (Report, 31 January, 2017), Available at: http://bit.ly/2knsFl2

[2] Samanth Subramanian, ‘India’s war on greenpeace’, (The Guardian, 11 August 2015), Available at: http://bit.ly/2aOaFqP

[3] Al Jazeera, ‘Amnesty: Hundreds abducted, tortured in Egypt’, (13 July 2016), Available at: http://bit.ly/29IchWo

[4] Barbara Unmüßig, ‘Civil Society Under Pressure’ (01 January 2016). Available at: http://bit.ly/1RkoSPU

[5] Harriet Sherwood, ‘Human rights groups face global crackdown not seen in a generation’,( The Guardian, 26 August 2016), Available at: http://bit.ly/2fba1Xv

[6] Global Witness, ‘On dangerous ground’, (Report, 20 June 2016), Available at: http://bit.ly/2ldHLas

[7] John Samuel (n7)

[8] Helmut K. Anheier, ‘Civil society: measurement, evaluation, policy’ (2004).

[9] Helmut K. Anheier (n10)

[10]Lester M. Salamon & Helmut K. Anheier, ‘In search of the non-profit sector. I: The question of definitions.’, (International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 1992)

[11] Kirsty Brimelow et al., ’Shaping the Law: Civil Society Influence at International Criminal Courts’ (25 January 2016). Available at: http://bit.ly/2pGe5av

[12] Dr. Aisha Ghaus-Pasha, ‘Role of civil society organisations in governance’, (December 2004).

[13] Belinda Goldsmith, ‘Why is trust in NGOs falling?’ ( World Economic Forum, 21 January 2015). Available at: http://bit.ly/2pc248z

[14] Hakan Seckinelgin et al. ‘Poverty and Activism: The heart of oral civil society,’ (12 May 2009). Available at: http://bit.ly/2pLHI85

[15] Civicus, ‘State of Civil Society Report 2016,’ (01 November 2016). Available at: http://bit.ly/1890Q4H

[16] Siân Herbert, ‘Restricting space for civil society’ (GSDRC, 28 August 2015). Available at: http://bit.ly/2pv13fq

[17] Anastasia Vladimirova, ‘Russia & Israel Are Cracking Down on Human Rights NGOs’, (Muftah, 15 February, 2016), Available at: http://bit.ly/2quO8Mm

[18] ’ Discussion Paper, Civil society threatened all over the world – For just development, environmental protection, democracy, human rights and peace’, (21 February 2017). Available at: http://bit.ly/2qCSfBK

[19] Amnesty International, ‘HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS UNDER THREAT – A SHRINKING SPACE FOR CIVIL SOCIETY’, (2017). Available at: http://bit.ly/2qUPM7m

Human rights defenders in prison: what is life like behind bars?

In the run-up to the 2017-8 elections, the Royal Government of Cambodia (“RGC”) is narrowing the space for political dissent and suppressing the right to freedom of assembly. Amid the crackdown on fundamental freedoms, CCHR pays a visit to rights advocates who are being held in pre-trial detention on charges widely believed to be politically motivated. How did they get there, and what does it feel like to be held behind bars?

Dressed in black and holding placards above their heads, a group of activists from Boeung Kak Lake march from house to house, reminding residents of the detention of their long-time community leader and advocate, Ms. Tep Vanny. The demonstrators are ordinary Cambodian men and women who were propelled into a land dispute when their land was leased by the government to Chinese company Shukaku Inc. for development. They hold photographs of Tep Vanny and wear t-shirts emblazoned with her face alongside the message: ‘Free the Activist’. Their march is a tribute to a human rights advocate in prison, who can no longer march for the community herself. Ominously, and despite the fact that the protest is peaceful and takes place in their own neighborhood, the demonstrators are trailed by Daun Penh security guards.[1]

The Black Monday protests go back to May 2016, when four officers from the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), as well as a former ADHOC official and deputy secretary-general of the NEC, were arrested on charges of bribing a witness. Mr. Ny Sokha, Mr. Yi Soksan, Mr. Nay Vanda, Ms. Lim Mony and Mr. Ny Chakrya had given advice and legitimate reimbursement of food and transport costs to Ms. Khom Chandaraty, who sought their legal assistance after police named her as one of the people featured in recorded phone conversations with acting leader of the CNRP, Kem Sokha.[2]

Protesters from eviction-hit communities such as Boeung Kak Lake and Borei Keila expanded the ongoing campaigns to demand the release of the four ADHOC staff and one NEC member, dubbed the ‘5KH’. Drawing together disparate social movements, local activists and civil society organizations began to support each other through these demonstrations. Various groups began wearing the color black to demand the release of the five. The color not only showed support for the protesters, it was a mark of the political suppression they faced.

They gathered in central Phnom Penh to demonstrate opposition to the continuing pre-trial detention of the five, often brushing up against the authorities. After the death of political analyst Kem Ley in July, they further expanded the scope of the protest and demanded an independent investigation into the death. But as the activists entered the public debate on the 5KH, they too became targets of judicial harassment.

Black Monday protestors were arrested and detained. Some were forced to sign documents with the promise that they would no longer gather in public wearing black – a measure which has no basis in domestic law. They were told to obtain permission from the Ministry of Interior before launching campaigns.[3] The government warned protesters that their actions were being recorded and they could be targeted by the authorities retroactively.[4] Threatening phone calls and personal visits were made by security forces to prominent activists.[5] All of these actions violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty to which Cambodia is a party.

Dozens of arrests have been made in relation to the Black Monday campaign, and on 16 August 2016 two of its most prominent leaders – Tep Vanny and Bov Sophea – were detained and charged with incitement. Incredibly, when it came to the trial the judge altered the charges against them during the delivery of the verdict and in the end both were convicted for insulting a public official.[6]

In a move that has been seen as a politically motivated response to the prominence of Black Monday protesters, Ms. Tep Vanny was kept in pre-trial detention in relation to previously dormant charges of intentional violence, relating to a 2013 protest outside Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house, an occasion which ended in a violent crackdown on the demonstrators by security guards and para police that left some with broken bones.

Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, identified Tep Vanny’s detention as a violation of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Every Cambodian citizen is guaranteed these rights in Cambodia’s Constitution, which is inseparable from international human rights law. “It seems one can’t protest the wrongful treatment of critics of the government without becoming the next target of government mistreatment.”[7]

Now the 5KH have been detained for over 300 days, and Ms. Tep Vanny for over 200. Their charges bear all the hallmarks of being politically motivated. In November 2016, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruled the detention of the ADHOC 5 ‘arbitrary’, and on 23 February 2017 four of the five were denied bail by the Court of Appeal. On 13 March 2017 the Supreme Court also rejected a challenge by four of the five detainees to the extension of their pre-trial detention;[8] the Supreme Court will hear Ny Chakrya’s challenge to the extension of his detention on 24 March.

Also on 23 Febrary, Tep Vanny was sentenced to 2 years and 6 months in prison. In an earlier abortive hearing, which the judge adjourned because he felt ill, the complainant walked into the courtroom late and interrupted Tep Vanny’s cross-examination. When she saw that it was Mr. Hor Hoeun, a Daun Penh security guard, she grew livid. “I am feeling bad when the plaintiff is the person who beat us while we protested for nearly 10 years.”[9]

The Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (“CCHR”) conducts regular prison visits to touch base with the detained human rights defenders and assess their needs. At Prey Sar prison the ADHOC 5 and Tep Vanny live with hundreds of prisoners, both those awaiting trial and those who have been convicted of crimes. With overcrowded conditions and everything from toiletries to the water to wash with costing money, Prey Sar is a difficult environment to live in.[10] It’s even harder if you are kept there without having yet been convicted.

Even within the same prison, the detainees do not get many opportunities to speak to one another, and all have a lot to say to our NGO officers. The main concern shared by the human rights defenders was concern for their families. As well as missing family and friends, the detainees feel removed from their domestic situation and worry about the safety and wellbeing of their loved ones. From having to sit behind a barrier when they visit to being unable to look after them when they’re sick, the detainees feel separated from relatives who rely on their care. Some of their children are struggling with their studies or are unwell, which the detainees see as a result of the stress of having a parent in prison. Detainees are particularly worried about their families facing intimidation from the authorities.

The detainees were also concerned about other human rights activists whose freedom of assembly is being suppressed. The recent case of Mr. Am Sam Ath and Mr. Chan Puthisak being summoned to court for questioning about a protest they attended last October, when they were beaten by security guards, was particularly troubling. They worry that such moves may be judicial intimidation, designed to deter other human rights defenders from taking a stand.

Crowded conditions and poor hygiene are a constant battle in prison. Within the time that they have been detained, the human rights defenders have seen prisoner numbers soar, sometimes from 20 people in a cell to as many as 50. The Ministry of Interior’s annual report shows that prison numbers have jumped 20 percent since last year.[11] The detainees report that sleeping at night is particularly hard in packed cells.
Despite being held in detention indefinitely, one detainee in particular gave an emotional statement on the current state of Cambodian society. In an impassioned plea, the detainee stressed that – now more than ever – government officials, civil society members and the Cambodian community as a whole need to come together to create a better future for Cambodia. With the upcoming commune elections looming, the importance of peaceful dialogue and cooperation between all sectors of Cambodian society is integral to preserve and develop the democratic structures Cambodia has in place. The prisoner closed their statement reiterating that a fire for justice still burns brightly inside of them, and that they hope Cambodia will continue to rise and grow throughout this difficult time in its history.

Overall, the human rights defenders are in good spirits. This is a sign of their incredible courage and fortitude in the face of adversity, perhaps strengthened by their conviction that they do not deserve such lengthy imprisonment. One detainee expressed worry that advocacy for their cause will dwindle the longer the case is prolonged and they remain in prison. It is imperative that civil society organizations and Cambodian citizens to show their support for the 5KH and Tep Vanny.

Olivia Dehnavi, CCHR International Intern

To find out more about the #Freethe5KH and #FreeTepVanny campaigns, and to send the detainees a personal message in prison, visit https://freethe5kh.net.

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[1] Phnom Penh Post, “Bystanders Cheer Their Support for Black Monday Marchers” (14 February 2017). Available at: https://www.cambodiadaily.com/morenews/bystanders-cheer-their-support-for-black-monday-marchers-125105/

[2] Phnom Penh Post, “Alleged mistress of Kem Sokha slandered for political gain: experts” (19 April 2016). Available at: http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/alleged-mistress-kem-sokha-slandered-political-gain-experts

[3] Radio Free Asia, “Cambodian Authorities Arrest Seven ‘Black Monday’ Protesters” (06 June 2016). Available at: http://www.rfa.org/english/news/cambodia/cambodian-authorities-arrest-seven-black-monday-protesters-06062016161232.html

[4] Cambodia Daily, “Government Bites Back as ‘Black Monday’ Returns” (27 September 2016). Available at: https://www.cambodiadaily.com/news/government-bites-back-black-monday-returns-118485/

[5] Human Rights Watch, “Cambodia: Drop Case Against Peaceful Activists” (19 August 2016). Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/08/19/cambodia-drop-case-against-peaceful-activists

[6] LICADHO, “Tep Vanny Returned to CC2 Prison as Two Activists Convicted” (22 August 2016). Available at: https://www.licadho-cambodia.org/flashnews.php?perm=187

[7] Brad Adams, “Cambodia: Drop Case Against Peaceful Activists” (19 August 2016). Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/08/19/cambodia-drop-case-against-peaceful-activists

[8] Cambodia Daily, “Top Court Upholds Decision to Deny Bail for Adhoc Officials” (14 March 2017). Available at: https://www.cambodiadaily.com/news/top-court-upholds-decision-to-deny-bail-for-adhoc-officials-126486/

[9] Cambodia Daily, “Tep Vanny Trial Adjourned After It Descends Into Chaos” (03 February 2013). Available at: https://www.cambodiadaily.com/news/tep-vanny-trial-adjourned-descends-chaos-124587/

[10] LICADHO, “Rights at a Price: Life Inside Cambodia’s Prisons” (20 January 2015). Available at: http://www.licadho-cambodia.org/collection/25/life_inside_cambodia_prison

[11] Phnom Penh Post, “Prison numbers jump 20 percent” (23 February 2017). Available at: http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/prison-numbers-jump-20-percent

Is this the beginning of the end for digital activism in Cambodia?

In August 2015, minutes before sitting down to take an exam at Phnom Penh’s Khemarak University, 25-year old student, Kong Raya, was arrested and subsequently detained at Prey Sar prison. Two weeks earlier, he had asked on his Facebook page whether anyone would “dare to make a color revolution” with him. Despite claiming the post was intended more as “entertainment” and less as a veritable call to arms, the authorities, in a clear violation of freedom of expression, deemed him guilty of “incitement to commit a felony”. He was subsequently handed an 18-month prison sentence in March this year in the face of widespread indignation across civil society.

States have a moral obligation to protect their citizens and whilst this may sometimes require prosecuting citizens for speech “that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, Kong Raya’s post could hardly be perceived in this way. Unfortunately, his arrest is one of many similar incidents in the past year in which individuals have been punished for expressing themselves online, demonstrating a recent intensification in the Royal Government of Cambodia (“RGC”)’s internet censorship efforts. The RGC has justified such clear human rights violations as necessary in order to prevent a relapse into the anarchism of the Pol Pot era, as exemplified by the RGC’s Cambodian Human Rights Committee’s recent series of videos on “the excessive use of rights”, which portray people power as inherently violent and guaranteed to bring about the downfall of society.

Due to the internet’s late introduction in Cambodia – internet subscriptions were as low as 320,190 in 2010 but rose to 6,795,908 in 2015 – the internet has, to date, managed to remain a relatively free space for Cambodians to openly express their views. However, since the 2013 election, in which the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (“CNRP”) significantly dented the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (“CPP”) hold on power by successfully embracing the internet as a means of circumventing state censorship of traditional media sources, the RGC has increasingly turned its attention to prosecuting those that publish disagreeable online content.

For years, government censorship of the internet in Cambodia was conducted in a manner that belied any discernible underlying strategy. Websites, such as those of London-based transparency group Global Witness and Cambodian diaspora blog KI-Media, were temporarily blocked for posting content critical of the RGC and numerous initiatives, such as the plan to establish a “Morality Committee” to block websites deemed to be in conflict with national values, were proposed but later either condemned to the rubbish heap or poorly enforced. However, as internet penetration grew, the RGC was compelled to rethink its approach to online censorship in order to protect its position of power. 

In May 2012, the RGC first announced its plan to introduce a Cybercrime Law, which, according to the spokesman for the RGC’s Press Department, was “to prevent any ill-willed people or bad mood people from spreading false information, groundless information that could tend to mislead the public and affect national security or our society”. The latest draft of the proposed law contains a number of worrying provisions and purposefully ambiguous language that has the possibility of lending itself to political manipulation. For example, Article (27), provides for the dissolution of legal entities, including NGOs, if individuals affiliated with the organization perpetrate ambiguously defined “cybercrimes”.

King Norodom Sihamoni promulgated a new Telecommunications Law on 7 December 2015, giving the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications (“MPT”) the power to order telecommunications providers to hand over data, systems and equipment and even to transfer control of telecommunication systems to the Ministry if circumstances deemed to threaten national security were to arise. Moreover, Article 97 criminalizes eavesdropping conducted by private individuals but authorizes such forms of surveillance when conducted by the MPT.

In lieu of the recently adopted Telecommunications Law and pending Cybercrime Law, the RGC repeatedly threatened and arrested individuals for posting critical online content, often invoking arguments citing defamation as a criminal offence by way of justification. Hun Sen himself has warned internet users planning on using “bad words” to insult him that it would take the government less than seven hours to find them. Since August 2015, no less than seven people have been arrested and 24 publicly threatened with prosecution for posting online comments, marking a turning point in the government’s previously inconsistent approach to online censorship.

Senator Hong Sok Hour was among the seven arrested since last August. Testament to the RGC’s continued interference in judicial matters, the Senator’s arrest came days after Prime Minister Hun Sen had personally called for his arrest during a speech. In contempt of his parliamentary immunity, Hong Sok Hour was charged with forgery and incitement and detained at Prey Sar prison for posting on Facebook a doctored version of a 1979 Cambodia-Vietnam Border Treaty in August. As his defense team has consistently argued, there was no evidence that Hong Sok Hour was even aware of the erroneous details contained in his post and posting a fake treaty on Facebook does not in itself constitute a crime. Thus, Hun Sen has effectively “criminalized a statement of historical inaccuracy as a means of cracking down on the political opposition, demonstrating that he has the power to arrest and imprison anybody, anytime”.

Unfortunately, the judicial harassment of individuals that have aired political grievances online threatens to lead to a culture of self-censorship in Cambodia. This amounts to a violation of freedom of expression, which is essential in the fight to preserve all other inalienable human rights by allowing individuals to challenge injustices; to hold government accountable to those it represents and to share and exchange ideas and information freely.

Since the 2013 elections, the RGC has increasingly sought to crackdown on political dissent expressed via the internet. Alongside arming itself with a legal arsenal to arbitrarily prosecute those that politically oppose it, the RGC has continually threatened and arrested individuals that post online criticism of its actions, even when such comments fall well within the boundaries of legitimate expression. The Court of Appeal’s decision to uphold the highly controversial 18-month sentencing of Kong Raya in July this year demonstrated that this unwavering opposition to freedom of expression when it threatens the reputation of the RGC is unlikely to change anytime soon. Given the recent spate of high profile defamation cases, exemplified by the ongoing trial of Kem Sokha, this is only likely to intensify as we approach the upcoming national elections in 2018.

The introduction of the internet to Cambodia once offered the Cambodian democratic project a glimmer of hope, offering Cambodians an opportunity to openly share ideas without fear of reprisal. As the RGC presses ahead with its introduction of repressive laws intent on outlawing freedom of expression in the Kingdom, these hopes are now being slowly extinguished. With the traditional media already under the control of the RGC and the staging of large-scale non-violent public protests near impossible, Cambodians risk losing their last remaining arena for open, political debate.

Euan Black, CCHR International Intern

 

 

 

After-Shocks of Turkish Coup Attempt Felt in Cambodia

Although recent domestic focus has been on Kem Ley’s death and funeral, second-order effects of the 15 July coup d’etat attempt in Turkey are being felt in Cambodia, as well.

The Erdogan government’s reaction to the coup attempt has seen more than 13,000 servicemen detained, as well as the dismissal of 5,000 judges and prosecutors. Many of the purge victims have been targeted due to alleged connections to Fethullah Gulen and his Gulen Movement, which the Turkish government alleges to be behind the coup attempt. Its reach now threatens to extend to Cambodia.

On 18 July, Turkish Ambassador Ilhan Khemal Tug requested that the Royal Government of Cambodia (“RGC”) close down Zaman schools within Cambodia. The two private institutions, Zaman International School and Zaman University, have been in Phnom Penh for nearly two decades. These schools were founded by a member of the Gulen Movement. Parent company Zaman Co Ltd, however, denies any affiliation with the Gulen Movement beyond a spiritual connection. Chum Sounry, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, responded that the RGC would seriously consider the Turkish request. As of 2 August, however, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport has maintained that its technical mandate does not extend to what it sees as purely a “political matter.”

Meanwhile, a video posted on social media on 17 July by Som Sovanara, a Cambodian resident of Canada, called on soldiers to prepare to move against the RGC. Since then, contradicting claims have emerged regarding Som Sovanara’s identity and military service history.   While Sovanara claims to have served between 2007 and 2010, Lieutenant General Srey Deuk claims he hired Sovanara for less than half a year without a contract.On the other hand, the Defense Ministry has denied finding any trace of Sovanara in its records.

Fear of an impending coup has also been exacerbated by the redeployment of armored units and the Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit from border regions to the capital city. Videos showing the convoys appeared on social media around the same time as Som Sovanara’s video. The Defense Ministry claims that the tanks are being moved to Phnom Penh for repairs.

More recently in August, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was even quoted at the Khmer Rouge tribunal when the defense for Nuon Chea drew a parallel between Khmer Rouge attitudes and the rhetoric used in the wake of the Turkish coup attempt.

Some mystery and controversy still surrounds the Turkish coup attempt, with some claiming that Erdogan himself had a hand in it. Meanwhile, in Cambodia, public anxiety, cynicism towards authority, and contradicting reports have put people on edge. Time will tell whether this was merely an odd coincidence of events, a true coup plot, or an elaborate hoax.

Ivan Kanzaki, CCHR International Intern

World Press Freedom Day: why is access to information important in Cambodia?

Click here to read Khmer / ចុចទីនេះដើម្បីអានជាភាសាខ្មែរ

Today marks World Press Freedom Day (“WPFD”), an annual initiative that aims to promote and protect freedom of the press across the globe. The principal focus of this year’s WPFD is access to information, an essential requirement of any truly participatory democracy, insofar as it allows for public scrutiny, oversight, participation, and empowerment.

As the recent Panama Papers debacle (in which Cambodia’s Minister of Justice was named) highlights, access to information is crucial to the fight against corruption and, by extension, the promotion of good governance. Guaranteeing access to information is crucial in Cambodia, given the deeply entrenched corruption within the country.

To mark WPFD, CCHR released a series of infographics as part of a social media campaign to highlight the situation of press freedom and access to information in Cambodia. The social media campaign can be followed through CCHR’s Facebook and Twitter accounts.

One of the infographics from CCHR’s series

One of the infographics from CCHR’s series

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In addition, CCHR asked local journalists ‘why is access to information important in Cambodia?’ and received the following responses:

We are human beings living in a democratic society. If we cannot access the truth, we are no different to a tree.”

Mr. Vann Vicha, journalist

Access to information is the basic right for everyone to receive public information from public institutions and sometimes from private organizations. Access to information benefits everyone, including reporters, students, farmers, community people and vulnerable groups.”

Ms. Sa Samdeat, citizen journalist

“We know that to make democracy work, people must have the right to know important information and the leadership must be accountable. Thus, for Cambodia to be a democratic country, access to information must be guaranteed under the law in accordance with international principles.”

Ms. Im Rachna, journalist

…Cambodia strongly needs the Law on Access to Information in order to help those who actively work for a better future.”

Mr. Nhim Sakhorn, journalist

“…In a true democratic society access to information is essential. Access to information is the foundation for people to be able to make the right decisions and to know the truth of the situation of their country.”

Mr. Phak Seangly

“The absence of an Access to Information Law has been a major obstacle for me to seek the truth for the public. More corruption cases would have been reported; more corrupt officials would have been held accountable… if an Access to Information Law had existed. I believe that if access to information is legally guaranteed and properly enforced, democratization in Cambodia will thrive.”

Ms. Cheng Mengchou, journalist

“I strongly believe that access to information is extremely important in this country as it aims to ensure an effective democracy and the rule of law… access to information is part of basic human rights to ensure governmental transparency.

Furthermore, freedom of the press and media also plays an important role as a watchdog to check on how the government makes decisions for developments without harming local people. The press and media are effective tools to raise voices against social injustice and to enhance liberty…”

Mr. Taing Vida, journalist

What are your views on access to information in Cambodia? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!

ទិវាសេរីភាពសារព័ត៌មានពិភពលោក ៖ ហេតុអ្វីការទទួលបានព័ត៌មានមានសារៈសំខាន់នៅកម្ពុជា?

            នៅថ្ងៃនេះជាការប្រារព្ធទិវាសេរីភាពសារព័ត៌មានពិភពលោកជាការផ្តួចផ្តើមប្រចាំឆ្នាំក្នុងគោល បំណងលើកកម្ពស់និងការពារសេរីភាពសារព័ត៌មាននៅទូទាំងពិភពលោក។ គោលការណ៍សំខាន់នៃទិវាសេរីភាពសារព័ត៌មានឆ្នាំនេះគឺផ្តោតទៅលើការទទួលបានព័ត៌មាន ដែលជាលក្ខខណ្ឌសំខាន់មួយនៃលទ្ធិប្រជាធិបតេយ្យដែលមានលក្ខណៈចូលរួមពិតប្រាកដ ដែល “អនុញ្ញាតឱ្យមានការតាមដានជាសាធារណៈ ការពិនិត្យមើល ការចូលរួម និងការពង្រឹងអំណាច”។

            នាពេលថ្មីៗនេះ ឯកសារប៉ាណាម៉ា (Panama Papers) បានបញ្ចេញឈ្មោះអ្នកលាក់លុយ (ដែលនៅក្នុងនោះក៏មានបង្ហាញឈ្មោះរបស់រដ្ឋមន្ត្រីក្រសួងយុត្តិធម៌កម្ពុជាផងដែរ)។ ការទទួលបានព័ត៌មានគឺមានសារៈសំខាន់ក្នុងការប្រយុទ្ធប្រឆាំងនឹងអំពើពុករលួយ និងរហូតដល់ការលើកកម្ពស់អភិបាលកិច្ចល្អ។ ការធានាដល់ការទទួលបានព័ត៌មានមានសារៈសំខាន់នៅកម្ពុជា ដោយសារអំពើពុករលួយបានចាក់ឫសយ៉ាងមាំនៅកម្ពុជាបាន។

            ដើម្បីចូលរួមប្រារព្ធទិវាសេរីភាពសារព័ត៌មានពិភពលោកឆ្នាំនេះ ម.ស.ម.ក ចេញផ្សាយប័ណ្ណព័ត៌មានជាដែលជាផ្នែកនៃយុទ្ធនាការតាមរយៈបណ្តាញផ្សព្វផ្សាយសង្គម ដើម្បីគូសបញ្ជាក់ពីស្ថានភាពនៃសេរីភាពសារព័ត៌មាននិងការទទួលបានព័ត៌មាននៅកម្ពុជា។ យុទ្ធនាការតាមបណ្តាញផ្សព្វផ្សាយសង្គមនេះនឹងធ្វើឡើងតាមរយៈទំព័រហ្វេសប៊ុក និង ទ្វីតធើរបស់ ម.ស.ម.ក។

ប័ណ្ណព័ត៌មានមួយក្នុងចំណោមប័ណ្ណព័ត៌មានផ្សេងទៀតរបស់ ម.ស.ម.ក

ប័ណ្ណព័ត៌មានមួយក្នុងចំណោមប័ណ្ណព័ត៌មានផ្សេងទៀតរបស់ ម.ស.ម.ក

ម្យ៉ាងទៀត ម.ស.ម.ក បានសួរអ្នកសារព័ត៌ក្នុងស្រុកមួយចំនួនថា “ហេតុអ្វីការទទួលបានព័ត៌មានមានសារៈសំខាន់នៅកម្ពុជា?” ដោយទទួលបានការឆ្លើយតបដូចខាងក្រោម ៖

«ព្រោះពួកយើងជាមនុស្សក្នុងសង្គមប្រជាធិបតេយ្យ បើសិនជាសូម្បីតែព័ត៌មានពិតក៏យើងគ្មានសិទ្ធិទទួល បាននោះពួកយើងមិនខុសអីពីជនគល់ឈើឡើយ»

លោក វណ្ណ វិចារ (អ្នកសារព័ត៌មាន)

«សិទ្ធិទទូលបានព័ត៌មានគឺជាសិទ្ធិរបស់មនុស្សគ្រប់រូប ដើម្បីទទួលបានព័ត៌មានជាសាធារណៈដែលបានកាន់ កាប់ដោយស្ថាប័នសាធារណៈនិងក្នុងករណីខ្វះព័ត៌មានដែលកាន់កាប់ដោយស្ថាប័នឯកជន។ សិទ្ធិទទួលបាន ព័ត៌មានមានប្រយោជន៍សម្រាប់មនុស្សគ្រប់រូបរួមទាំងរដ្ឋាភិបាលអ្នកសារព័ត៌មាន សិស្ស កសិករ ប្រជាពលរដ្ឋ ក្នុងសហគមន៍ និងក្រុមដែលងាយរងគ្រោះផ្សេងទៀត»។

អ្នកស្រី សា សំដៀត (អ្នកសារព័ត៌មានពលរដ្ឋ)

«យើងដឹងហើយថា ដើម្បីឲ្យលទ្ធិប្រជាធិបតេយ្យដំណើរការ ប្រជាពលរដ្ឋត្រូវមានសិទ្ធិដឹងនូវព័ត៌មានទាំងឡាយដែលពួកគេគួរតែដឹងឬចាំបាច់ត្រូវដឹងរួមជាមួយនឹងគណនេយ្យភាពនៃការដឹកនាំ។ ហេតុដូច្នេះនៅកម្ពុជាក្នុងនាមជាប្រទេសប្រកាន់របបប្រជាធិបតេយ្យ សិទ្ធិនៃការទទួលបានព័ត៌មានគួរត្រូវបានធានាដោយច្បាប់មួយដ៏ល្អស្របតាមគោលការណ៍អន្ដរជាតិ»។

កញ្ញា អ៊ឹម រចនា (អ្នកសារព័ត៌មាន)

«…កម្ពុជាចាំបាច់ត្រូវមានច្បាប់ស្តីពីសិទ្ធិទទួលបានព័ត៌មាន ដើម្បីជួយអ្នកដែលធ្វើការងារសកម្ម ដើម្បីអនាគត ល្អប្រសើរ»។

លោក ញឹម សុខន (អ្នកសារព័ត៌មាន)

«… នៅក្នុងសង្គមប្រជាធិបតេយ្យពិតប្រាកដមិនគួរគ្មានសិទ្ធិទទួលបានព័ត៌មាន (right to know) ទាល់តែ សោះ។ ការទទួលបានព័ត៌មានគ្រប់គ្រាន់វាជាមូលដ្ឋានគ្រឹះមួយសម្រាប់ពលរដ្ឋធ្វើការ សម្រេចចិត្តដ៏ ត្រឹមត្រូវ មួយ និងដឹងពីស្ថានភាពរបស់ប្រទេសជាតិខ្លួនផងដែរ»។

លោក ផាក់ ស៊ាងលី (អ្នកសារព័ត៌មាន)

«អវត្តមាននៃច្បាប់ស្តីពីសិទ្ធិទទួលបានព័ត៌មានគឺជាឧបសគ្គធំមួយសម្រាប់រូបខ្ញុំក្នុងការស្វែងរកព័ត៌មានពិតដើម្បីផ្សព្វផ្សាយជូនដល់សាធារណជនករណីអំពើពុករលួយជាច្រើនអាចនឹងត្រូវបានរាយការណ៍ មន្ត្រីពុករលួយជា ច្រើនអាចនឹងត្រូវទទួលខុសត្រូវចំពោះមុខច្បាប់… ប្រសិនជាមានច្បាប់ស្តីពី សិទ្ធិទទួលបានព័ត៌មាន។ ខ្ញុំជឿ ជាក់ថា បើសិនជាសិទ្ធិទទួលបានព័ត៌មាន ត្រូវបានធានាដោយ ច្បាប់ ហើយអនុវត្តបានត្រឹមត្រូវ នោះលទ្ធិប្រជា ធិបតេយ្យនៅកម្ពុជានឹងប្រព្រឹត្តទៅដោយរលូន»។

កញ្ញា ចេង ម៉េងជូ (អ្នកសារព័ត៌មាន)

« ខ្ញុំជឿយ៉ាងមុតមាំថាសិទ្ធិទទួលបានព័ត៌មានពិតជាមានសារៈសំខាន់ណាស់នៅក្នុងប្រទេសកម្ពុជាក្នុងការធានានូវដំណើរការល្អនៃលទ្ធិប្រជាធិបតេយ្យនិងនីតិរដ្ឋ…ការទទួលបានព័ត៌មានគឺជាផ្នែកមួយនៃសិទ្ធិជាមូលដ្ឋានរបស់មនុស្ស ដើម្បីធានាពីតម្លាភាពរបស់រដ្ឋាភិបាល»

« លើសពីនេះទៀត សេរីភាពសារព័ត៌មាន និងប្រព័ន្ធផ្សព្វផ្សាយដើរតួនាទីយ៉ាងសំខាន់ក្នុងការតាមដាន និងពិនិត្យមើលទៅលើការធ្វើសេចក្តីសម្រេចរបស់រដ្ឋាភិបាលដើម្បីការអភិវឌ្ឍដោយមិនបង្កមហន្តរាយដល់ពលរដ្ឋនៅថ្នាក់មូលដ្ឋាន។ សារព័ត៌មាននិងប្រព័ន្ធផ្សព្វផ្សាយគឺជាឧបករណ៍ដ៏មានប្រសិទ្ធភាពក្នុងការបន្លឺសំឡេង ប្រឆាំង នឹងអំពើអយុត្តិធម៌ក្នុងសង្គម និងបង្កើនតម្លៃនៃសេរីភាព»។

លោក តាំង វីដា (អ្នកសារព័ត៌មាន)

តើអ្នកមានទស្សនៈយ៉ាងណាអំពីការទទួលបានព័ត៌មាននៅកម្ពុជា? សូមចូលរួមចែករំលែកគំនិតរបស់អ្នកនៅផ្នែកមតិយោបល់ខាងក្រោម !

The draft Trade Union Law: restricting the right to association

Cambodia is edging ever closer to adopting a new law on trade unions, despite heavy criticism from workers, civil society organizations (“CSOs”) and relevant stakeholders.

The draft Trade Union Law (“TUL”) will be sent to the National Assembly for debate next Monday, on 04 April 2016. In a last-ditch attempt to dissuade the National Assembly from adopting this draconian law, independent unions have announced their intention to stage a large-scale protest outside the National Assembly on the day of the debate.

If passed in its current form, the draft TUL, which was approved by the cabinet on 13 November 2015, will impose arbitrary restrictions on the formation and operation of unions and, in so doing, will violate the rights of workers to freely join organizations of their own choosing (freedom of association) and to collectively bargain with their employers and local authorities. These rights are enshrined within international human rights law, which Cambodia is constitutionally obliged to adhere to.

As with the recent controversial Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (“LANGO”),[1] the draft TUL contains articles that render it “open to arbitrary or political-motivated interpretations by the courts”, insofar as it prohibits, in purposefully ambiguous terms, unions from acting “contrary to public order” and from causing “trouble with the only objective of being of service to a political tendency”.[2]

Despite the existence of comprehensive domestic and international legal frameworks that promote and protect human rights in Cambodia, in reality, the government, as evidenced by the recent introduction of laws such as the LANGO and the Telecommunications Law, does not shy away from reneging on its human rights obligations.

Trade unions have welcomed some changes in the most recent draft; most notably the lowering of the minimum number of workers required to start a union from 20 to 10 and the relaxing of the eligibility requirements for union leadership and criteria for obtaining “most representative status”. However, the draft TUL still fails to meet international labor law standards and, by calling for the mandatory registration of unions and enforcing limitations on union activities, infringes upon the ability of Cambodians to exercise their fundamental freedoms of association, expression and assembly. The draft TUL effectively criminalizes protests and demonstration by making it unlawful to “bring about a traffic jam”, demonstrating just how far the government is willing to go to crackdown on any form of political dissent.[3]

The provisions for a mandatory registration scheme and limitations upon the activities of unions provided for within the draft TUL irrevocably undermine Cambodia’s legal commitments under international human rights law. Such provisions violate the rights to freedom of assembly and expression; given that these are fundamental rights, Cambodians should not need to seek permission from the government before exercising them.

As Maina Kiai, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association has affirmed, Individuals involved in unregistered associations should indeed be free to carry out any activities, including the right to hold and participate in peaceful assemblies”.[4]

Article 29 of the draft TUL provides cause for further concern, insofar as it allows for the dissolution of a trade union in the event of ‘misconduct’ of an individual leader. ‘Misconduct’ does not even necessarily entail criminal conduct, meaning the government will be able to dissolve a union simply if it does not like the actions of an individual leader. This is particularly worrying in the light of recent events in which trumped-up charges have been brought against union leaders for alleged criminal activity during protests and demonstrations.

The events of 08 February 2016 represent one especially alarming example of governmental suppression of trade union activity. Four independent labor organization leaders were charged with intentional violence, obstructing public officials and blocking traffic in connection to an on-going protest against Capitol Tour’s unlawful dismissal of 45 bus drivers. None of the leaders were even present at the protest. These charges are indicative of a systematic governmental campaign to restrict freedoms of assembly, expression and association in Cambodia.[5] To make matters worse, Article 29 does not provide for an appeal process for unions and employer associations that have either been dissolved or had their registration applications denied.

In reaction to the poor reception the previous draft TUL received amongst CSOs, labor organizations and human rights commentators, the government delayed the law’s proposal to the National Assembly and announced on 10 December 2015 the creation of a bipartisan committee to examine the law. Yang Sophoan, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, was one of many union leaders to voice concerns over the proposed TUL. She said the law “doesn’t protect the interests of workers or unions” and considered the requirement for unions to provide financial reporting particularly worrying.[6] The committee concluded its proceedings on 19 January 2016, having made very few amendments to the draft.

As it stands, the draft TUL fails to uphold the rights of workers as codified in a number of human rights treaties and calls from unions to bring the law closer to international labor law standards appear unlikely to be answered. If passed, it will have a devastating effect on the ability of Cambodians to exercise their rights to freedom of assembly and expression and will effectively ban protests, a mainstay of any democratic society.

Euan Black, CCHR International Intern

[1] Phnom Penh Post, ‘Assembly passes LANGO’ (14 July 2015) Available at: http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/assembly-passes-lango

[2] Human Rights Watch, Cambodia: Revise Union Law to Protect Worker Rights (17 Dec 2015) Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/12/17/cambodia-revise-union-law-protect-worker-rights

[3] Human Rights Watch, Cambodia: Revise Union Law to Protect Worker Rights (17 Dec 2015) Available at: <https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/12/17/cambodia-revise-union-law-protect-worker-rights>

[4] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, para. 56, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/20/27 (21 May 2012)

[5] CCHR, ‘Escalation of Violent Repression of Trade Union Activities’ (Factsheet) (March 2016) Available at: http://cchrcambodia.org/admin/media/factsheet/factsheet/english/2016_03_09_CCHR_Fact_Sheet_Escalation_of_Violence_Against_Trade_Unions_ENG.pdf

[6] Voice of America, ‘Labor Leaders Fear Union Law Will Pass Without Meaningful Changes’ (06 January 2016) Available at: http://www.voacambodia.com/content/labor-leaders-fear-union-law-will-pass-without-meaningful-changes/3133580.html

Setting Examples: Women in Leadership

GVeX

Participants from the Global Voices Exchange (#GVeX) in Marseilles, France

By Chak Sopheap

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to go on missions to Washington DC and Marseille and I was able to engage in valuable and constructive discussions with senior government officials and fellow civil society leaders. Besides this, I had the pleasure of meeting with some exceptionally impressive individual leaders who are unwaveringly committed to the promotion of human rights in their communities and I learned a huge amount from my interactions with these individuals. In particular, it was fantastic to meet with some extraordinary women leaders who are providing a shining example for women in leadership in civil society and more generally around the world.

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As part of my mission to Washington DC between 09 and 12 February, it was a privilege to be invited to the White House to meet with US National Security Advisor Susan Rice and nine civil society leaders from South East Asia as part of the ‘Stand with Civil Society: ASEAN Consultations’ in advance of the US-ASEAN Summit. The meeting was an excellent opportunity to discuss problems facing civil society and share experiences and strategies with fellow civil society leaders. Other than the senior level of the meeting, I was most struck by the exceptionally respectful, thoughtful and perceptive style of leadership and personality of Susan Rice during the meeting, which was at times fairly frantic. For example, Susan Rice repeatedly encouraged an activist from a country in which activists are often repressed to contribute her thoughts and experiences. She was reluctant to speak because some of the other participants in the meeting continuously tried to speak over her and also partly because of her country’s political culture. It was impressive to see how Susan Rice ensured all the participants at the meeting were given the space and opportunity to freely express themselves and her considerate approach to encouraging the discussion of diverse perspectives and experiences was remarkable. The perceptive leadership style of Susan Rice and the conscientious manner in which she conducts herself are truly inspiring and make her a wonderful example for women leaders around the world.

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Following the meeting, the US National Security advisor issued a statement reiterating the “United States’ steadfast commitment to sustaining and supporting civil society in Southeast Asia and around the world”.[1] In addition, I also had the opportunity to meet with other senior government officials, including Deputy Secretary Anthony Blinken, Assistant Secretary Tom Malinowski, and Deputy Assistant Secretary Scott Busby, and prominent human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law. These meetings were very useful as we were able to discuss human rights abuses in Cambodia as well as the domestic and international strategies that can be used to challenge such violations. Alongside these meetings, I was invited to deliver a speech at an event organized by the association of Cambodian Americans for Human Rights and Democracy. With roughly 300 members of the Cambodian diaspora attending the Valentine’s Day celebration, it was the perfect opportunity for me to stress the importance of the active participation of every Cambodian citizen regardless of who and where we are, to give back to society and this could be the perfect expression of our solidarity and love. I was also interviewed by Voice of America Cambodia.

I then visited Marseille in France in order to attend an event focused on digital rights and advocacy. as part of Global Voices Exchange, ‪#‎GVeX, aimed at developing training and mentoring frameworks for the practice of advocacy, both online and offline, in the global south.

Throughout the five day training and mentoring program for advocacy strategies, I was lucky enough to meet with remarkable individuals who all shared the same passion and common values to support better governance, enable a healthy environment for civil society and empowering individuals to advocate for basic freedoms in their communities. Their determination and enthusiasm to make a difference and help to build a prosperous and liberal society in their communities was truly remarkable and I personally learned a huge amount from hearing about their experiences.

During both of these missions it was an honor to meet with a wide variety of inspirational leaders, from the White House to the activists gathered in Marseille. The determination of so many people with different backgrounds to contribute to the promotion of a liberal democracy and human rights in their own communities was very encouraging. It was especially impressive to meet with some extraordinary women leaders who conduct themselves in an extremely resolute and perceptive manner in order to ensure a wide variety of views and perspectives are properly heard.

Chak Sopheap is the Executive Director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights

[1] Office of the US National Security Advisor, ‘Statement by National Security Council Spokesperson Ned Price on National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice’s Meeting with Southeast Asian Civil Society Leaders’, The White House, 11 February 2016 < https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/02/11/statement-national-security-council-spokesperson-ned-price-national >

Difficult terrain: A long way to go for indigenous land rights in Cambodia

Indigenous people in Cambodia face an uphill battle to protect their communal lands. Powerful economic interests are gaining ground, and land registration procedures are failing to shield communities from destructive development. Earlier this month, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (“CCHR”) released a report “Access to Collective Land Titles for indigenous communities in Cambodia” on the state of the collective land registration system for indigenous communities. The report analyzes the barriers these communities face when trying to protect their land, finding that it is impossible for indigenous communities to complete the registration process themselves without outside assistance.

Land in Cambodia, as in many countries, is a key foundation of society. Land rights provide not only certainty for economic development and investment, but also security for families and communities. For indigenous communities in Cambodia, who have a very close relationship to the land, formal protection for collective ownership of land exists through collective land titles (“CLTs”). This title is specifically designed to protect indigenous communities’ interests. The existence of such customized, theoretically protective laws is remarkable; Cambodia is one of the few countries in the world where such comprehensive legal protections for indigenous land rights exist. But, as is often the case in Cambodia, what appears sufficient and effective on paper is not implemented in reality. As CCHR’s report makes clear, in practice collective land registration has been almost non-existent – of Cambodia’s 458 indigenous communities, only 11 have been able to complete the process and register their collective lands.

Numerous issues with the CLT registration process for indigenous communities were revealed by CCHR’s research, which explain this gap in the implementation of collective land registration. The cost, as mentioned, is very high, up to $20,000 for the first of the three stages alone. Communities require expert assistance for mapping their communal lands, and are also required to draft community bylaws. Communities can also only receive provisional protection of their land rights at the final stage of the application process. This is a major issue as the process can take years, meaning that communities have to fend of competing interests, such as companies seeking to begin logging in the area, for a protracted amount of time.

In the face of these challenges, little is being done to improve the process. Recently The Cambodia Daily reported that Germany had decided not to continue its support of the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction (“MLMUPC”), who manage the final stage of the CLT registration process. Germany was the last of several international partners that have been assisting the Royal Government of Cambodia (“RGC”) in their land reform projects, yet despite Germany’s persistence, repeated efforts at improvements and cooperation have been rebuffed. On the repeated suggestions from Germany that the RGC create an independent land dispute resolution body, the German Ambassador Joachim Baron von Marschall said, “Again, it seems that the government is not yet prepared to have such an institution. This was particularly signaled to us”.[1] The RGC also, according to the Ambassador, ignored repeated calls to have government land registers made public – this was a “political decision” on the part of the RGC.[2]

The implications of this withdrawal are potentially very damaging. In the absence of such international assistance, it is likely that the delays for indigenous communities attempting to register their collective lands will increase.

In response to Germany’s impending withdrawal, a recent press release from the MLMUPC flatly contradicted comments from the German Government, stating that the end of German cooperation “was not due to any failures.” [3]

The attitude of the RGC, and particularly the MLMUPC, is further revealed by their comments made after the CCHR report on collective land titling was launched. The MLMUPC denied that the report’s observations were valid, claiming that the government never allows the any companies violate the land of indigenous communities.[4] The MLMUPC also denied that they had contributed to the report, with ministry spokesperson Seng Loth commenting, “there was no participation from the ministry in providing data”.[5] However, in stark contrast to this claim, consultation with the MLMUPC was carried out in January 2016, as is described in the report.[6] CCHR found this consultation to be informative, and was able to use substantive information from this consultation in the report. To deny the veracity of this report, and by extension refuse to consider any recommendations within it, is tantamount to refusing to acknowledge the problem.

This is a critical time for indigenous land rights in Cambodia as indigenous communities are increasingly experiencing land alienation throughout the country. When indigenous communities lose their lands, they not only lose their livelihoods, but also risk permanently losing their indigenous culture and identity. It is hoped that the CCHR report, including its recommendations to relevant stakeholders, might serve to improve the implementation of the CLT registration process. The human rights, dignity and irreplaceable heritage of indigenous communities are at stake. If this is not motivation enough for the RGC to change its approach and make a concrete commitment to indigenous land rights, it is also notable that land rights issues are a significant cause of protests throughout Cambodia. To resolve land disputes and create effective land rights protection would lead to a more peaceful, equitable Cambodia for all citizens.

Robert Hill, CCHR International Intern

[1] Zsombor Peter, ‘In Frustration, Germany Ends Land Rights Work’, The Cambodia Daily, 04 February 2016 http://bit.ly/1QdMP5y

[2] Ibid

[3] Niem Chheng, ‘Gov’t denies land rights issues’, The Phnom Penh Post, 08 February 2016 http://bit.ly/1Pw0bKP

[4] RFI Khmer video interview with Seng Loth, MLMUPC spokesperson, 11 February 2016, http://rfi.my/1Q33mx1 (in Khmer)

[5] Chea Vannak, ‘Indigenous Community’s Collective Land Still in Danger: Report’, The Khmer Times, 12 February 2016 http://bit.ly/1Pq8t8U

[6] CCHR Report, ‘Access to Collective Land Titles for Indigenous communities in Cambodia’, February 2016, http://bit.ly/1SVlrQw