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

A Visit to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia

On Wednesday 09th, December, 2015 my colleagues and I were granted a golden opportunity to make a special visit to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (the “ECCC”). One national volunteer, four national interns and five international interns from the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (“CCHR”) participated in the visit. Through the afternoon our group attended a public trial hearing of case 002/02, and met for a briefing with two international co-prosecutors, and two international defense counsel from the defense support section.

The ECCC was established in January 2006. It is usually known by Khmer people as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. The ECCC is a hybrid tribunal because it is composed of both national and international personnel, and applies both domestic and international law. The trial aims to be conducted in conformity with international standards of justice. The scope of the ECCC’s jurisdiction includes a temporal jurisdiction, personal jurisdiction, and subject matter jurisdiction. The court’s temporal jurisdiction covers the period of Democratic Kampuchea, the so-called Khmer Rouge Regime. The period of this regime accounts for three years, eight months, and twenty days, which had spanned from 17 April 1975 to 6 January 1979. The personal jurisdiction is limited to only the senior leaders and those most responsible for crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge Regime. The subject matter jurisdiction of ECCC includes crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, destruction of cultural property during an armed conflict, crimes against internationally protected people under the 1961 Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations, and domestic criminal law (torture, murder, and religious persecution under the 1956 Cambodia Penal Code).

At the beginning of our visit, we attended a public trial hearing of case 002/02 which concerned allegations of genocide of the Cham and Vietnamese populations in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge, grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, forced marriages and rape, purges, persecution of Buddhists, as well as other crimes against humanity. These crimes allegedly occurred at four security centers, three worksites and the Tram Kok Cooperatives. During the trial, one witness, named Oum Sun, was interrogated by two lawyers for the civil parties and by two lawyers from the defense.

After joining the hearing, we went to meet four international staff of the ECCC. During the meeting, we listened to their brief description of the scope of ECCC’s jurisdiction, establishment and structure of the hybrid court, its procedure of judicial process, and the challenges facing legal staff. The two international lawyers for the defense and two the international co-prosecutors raised similar concerns and challenges which they confront during their performance of duty.

One of their challenges raised by the trial counsel was the major difference between common law system and the civil law system. This hybrid court is designed to apply both national and international law, yet is supposed to be within the Cambodian national jurisdiction. Two international lawyers emphasized that their implementation and interpretation of law is sometimes at odds with that of their Cambodian colleagues, as each draws on experience in different legal systems. Given the contradiction, international lawyers have to reconcile their understanding of their own national legal systems with the unique identity of the ECCC, especially if they come from common law-based countries such as the USA or the UK. If the civil law system doesn’t match their common law system, this may create obstacles in terms of trial procedure and process. This problem is hard to surmount and can even result in stalemates in the progress of the trials.

The second challenge raised by counsel was the translation of court proceedings. Three languages are formally used in this court: French, English, and Khmer. Most of the foreign staff are not able to read and understand all three languages, so they must solely rely on the translator and interpreter. The dependence on translators and interpreters can certainly hinder them from conducting a duly comprehensive investigation, discovering solid evidence, and making a profoundly detailed analysis of the facts. Translation issues also impact on fair trial rights for defendants, because neither the counsel nor the defendants themselves can know whether the translator is impartial, professional, or independent. Our group saw for ourselves how translation inadequacy can be a significant issue, as we observed that during the trial, details were lost in translation, slowing the progress of the trial and creating confusion, especially when questioning witnesses. As for the impact of translation on the prosecution, translation issues also impact on their duties. When details are lost in translation, and counsel are not able to fully understand proceedings, this obligation becomes difficult to fulfill. Therefore, the language barrier in the court not only causes delays, but also impact on the fair trial rights of the defendants.

The last challenge for lawyers in the ECCC is external pressure. The pressure might arise from the presumption of the defendants’ guilt by Cambodian people and the international population. Conversely, it may stem from the Cambodian Government’s resentment of UN interference in the Cambodian legal system. The Government, which itself contains fellow ex-Khmer Rouge cadres, would prefer to protect some of those on trial, and those subject to outstanding arrest warrants. As such, the judges may face government pressure to prove the defendants innocent. In turn, international law may not be fully applied in this court and international standard of justice may not be reached. External pressure might also come from the fact that the UN has spent so much time and money setting up the ECCC, so finding the defendants innocent might appear to make this effort futile.

As such, I believe the result of the trial could be unfair to the defendants. This appears to be supported by previous cases. For instance, after the case 002/01 was finished, both defendants filed an appeal to the court against the judgement. However, even on appeal the appellate court is also under the same pressure from public pressure, UN demands, and potential Cambodian government interference.

In short, the three major challenges of the international staff of ECCC are: external pressure, language barriers, and the discrepancies between the common law and civil law systems. These three barriers seriously affect the procedure of the ECCC in ensuring a fair judgment for both victims and defendants. The delays caused by these challenges can strongly impact the trial; the age of both witnesses and defendants means that inefficiency might ultimately frustrate the purpose of the trial, if defendants pass away before it reaches completion. Theoretically, these shortcomings should be overcome, so that they do not affect the results of the judgment and lead to deadlock. I vigorously hope that their concerns will be tackled as soon as possible, before Cases 003 and 004 are heard, in the pursuit of justice for both defendants and victims.

On behalf of the national interns, I would like express my gratitude for the considerable awareness of the trial process of the ECCC that we gained from the four international staff at the ECCC. The ECCC plays a crucial role in ensuring justice for Cambodian victims and other nationals whose relatives perished during the Khmer Rouge regime. It also acts as a role model for the domestic judicial system in Cambodia to imitate, in order to achieve an independent and impartial judicial system. A fair and independent domestic judiciary would promote justice, the rule of law, and right to a fair trial throughout Cambodia.

Kruy Kimsan, CCHR National Intern

Two Years Since Ruthless Crackdown of Garment Worker Demonstrations – What Has Changed?

Last Sunday marked the second anniversary of the deadly crackdown of a garment worker protest by military police in Phnom Penh, although it appears that little has changed in terms of the treatment of factory workers in Cambodia or the authorities’ response to demonstrations which remains as ruthless as ever.

The crackdown of the demonstration on 03 January 2014 occurred in Phnom Penh’s Canadia Industrial Park, killing five people and leaving over 30 others injured. These protests were part of a wider ongoing national strike in response to the failure of the Ministry of Labor’s Labor Advisory Committee to adequately raise the minimum wage beyond $95, as unions had requested. The authorities’ response to the discontent was ruthless, using a clearly disproportionate degree of violence in order to disperse the protestors. Initially the police broke up the demonstration beating people with batons before a larger cohort of military police armed with automatic weapons arrived, firing live ammunition at the demonstrators. This use of live ammunition on garment workers was particularly shocking and drew the outright condemnation from several domestic and international groups, and even international buyers.

Unfortunately the events of two years ago cannot be viewed as isolated events since continued demonstrations and violent official reactions suggest that little has changed. On the day of the second anniversary, a crowd of around 300 union members and factory workers gathered to commemorate the incident but this demonstration was also broken up by riot police. Despite the failure to prosecute those responsible for the killing of the five garment workers two years ago, the police arrested and sentenced activists involved in the demonstrations, and continue to arrest those that dare to demand better working conditions by exercising their fundamental right to freedom of assembly. The lack of an effective investigation into the use of deadly force two years ago is demonstrative of the pervading culture of impunity that stifles any legitimate dissent and undermines the rule of law in Cambodia.

The continued use of force to respond to any form of protest constitutes a major violation of the human rights of an already economically and politically marginalized and exploited sector of society. As well as allowing impunity for the state’s security personnel in their disproportionate use of deadly force, the failure to respect the human rights to freedom of assembly and peaceful protest is deeply troubling and constitutes breaches of ­­­Article 37 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia and Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is recognized in Cambodian law. Together with this serious infringement of core human rights, there has been very little progress in the improvement of the working conditions or wages in the garment sector. Due to the major significance of the garment industry for the Cambodian economy and fears that increased wages would make Cambodia less attractive to the multinational garment manufacturers, the government and local factory owners have staunchly refused to raise the minimum wage to the levels demanded by the unions. The unions have had some success in negotiating an increase in the monthly minimum wage with the 2016 wage being set at $140, although this still falls well short of the union demands of $160. The minimum wage therefore remains at an unsatisfactory level.

Two years after the deadly protests that drew the world’s attention to the plight of Cambodia’s garment workers, the situation remains much the same. The garment sector continues to be plagued by a myriad of human rights violations, and workers are denied the freedom to protest against their terrible working conditions or low wages due to the threat of lethal police force for which the perpetrators enjoy impunity. While the State certainly has a duty to protect human rights, the garment factories and international buyers also have a responsibility to ensure the rights of Cambodia’s garment workers are respected, as per the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Although cheap labor may be attractive for the likes of GAP and H&M, perhaps fair working conditions, respect for fundamental human rights and freedom from deadly violence would be a more attractive situation for all of those involved in the long term.

Georges Rouillon, CCHR International Intern

Year in Review: The Human Rights Situation in Cambodia in 2015

In 2015, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (“CCHR”) witnessed deterioration in the human rights situation in the country, with the vast gap between the theory and the implementation of human rights law growing even wider. The past year has seen a number of human rights abuses perpetrated against citizens; from land rights violations and attacks on Internet freedoms, to crackdowns on protestors and the political opposition. Throughout the year, the Royal Government of Cambodia (“RGC”) increasingly restricted fundamental freedoms, failing to follow Cambodian constitutional obligations and domestically enforceable international human rights standards. This post provides a brief snapshot of just a few of the major human rights issues observed in 2015.

Threats to freedoms of association, assembly and expression

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The year was marked by a number of restrictions to fundamental freedoms and attempts to stifle dissenting voices. After years of debate and heavy criticism from both national and international observers, the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations (“LANGO”) was finally enacted in August, representing one of the biggest threats to freedoms of association and expression in Cambodia in recent years. Despite calls from civil society organizations (“CSOs”) to amend the law, the LANGO contains troubling provisions with regard to the imposition of mandatory registration, onerous registration requirements, reporting obligations, and broad and vague grounds for denial of registration and deregistration. CCHR has already received worrying reports from around the country whereby the law has been used to restrict the activities of CSOs. For example, in August, a group of 71 families in Khsoeum commune, Kratie province, were informed by local authorities to cease all protest activities to protect their land until they had registered under the LANGO.[1]

It is clear that throughout the year, the RGC increasingly attempted to restrict the activities of CSOs and criminalize those who dared to challenge them. For example, the environmental CSO Mother Nature was heavily targeted by the RGC in 2015; its co-founder – activist Alex Gonzalez-Davidson – was deported in February, and a number of its members arrested. Three youth members of the organization arrested in August after engaging in peaceful protests against controversial sand dredging activities in Koh Kong remain in detention.

Aside from the LANGO, a number of other laws were passed this year that also restrict fundamental freedoms, including the passage of the election laws[2] in March, following a highly rushed and opaque process; and more recently the Telecommunications Law in November.

The use of social media in Cambodia continued to be a popular tool for news broadcasting and political discussion, despite outright attacks on Internet freedoms and digital rights by the RGC this year. Attacks on Internet freedoms include the arrest of university student Kong Raya and the conviction of Senator Hong Sok Hour in August, both cases relating to Facebook posts, and the more recent arrest warrant issued for the opposition leader’s Facebook manager in early December. This month, Prime Minister Hun Sen ominously warned social media users that he is watching them, threatening “you should not use bad words to insult me, because I can get you if I want to.”

Although the RGC announced at the end of 2014 that the draft Cybercrime Law had been shelved, a second draft was leaked this year, demonstrating that its passage is very much still on the minds of legislators. Although the latest draft appears to have had the most contentious article removed (for now), the broad scope of this law leaves it open to serious abuse. Given that the RGC has already been targeting Internet users and cracking down on the right to freedom of expression before the law has even been passed, the ramifications of the law being adopted are extremely troubling.

While the RGC had vowed to pass the Trade Union Law by the end of 2015, encouragingly the law – which threatens the right to freedom of association – remains under discussion, and the RGC and the opposition have met with trade union leaders to discuss their concerns. What remains to be seen is whether this will have any effect on the final legislation.

The end of the “culture of dialogue”

The year saw the collapse of the so-called “culture of dialogue” between the CPP and the CNRP. The end of the short-lived political truce was followed by politically motivated arrests and charges against opposition members, evidencing that the judiciary remains firmly under the influence of the ruling party as ever. From the 11 CNRP activists jailed in July (despite no evidence being presented in their trial), to the conviction in August of Senator Hong Sok Hour, the CPP’s political influence over the police and judiciary is glaringly apparent. Moreover, the savage beating of two opposition lawmakers outside the National Assembly in October is widely reported to have been orchestrated by the ruling party.

Notably, history seemed to repeat itself this year, with Sam Rainy going into voluntary exile once again, following the issue of an arrest warrant in November in connection with a defamation case dating back to 2008. Several more questionable charges have been brought against him since, and he now faces a number of years in prison. Diverging from history however, is the vow made by Prime Minister Hun Sen that there will be no pardon for Rainsy this time around.

Ongoing land disputes

One of the most obvious forms of human rights violations that continued to plague Cambodia this year was the ongoing violation of land rights. 2015 saw a continuation of pre-existing land disputes, and the beginning of a number of new conflicts. Insecurity of land tenure continued to be a pressing issue felt by a majority of Cambodians, due to land grabs and forced evictions, often associated with land concessions, infrastructure projects and powerful tycoons. Moreover, while a number of land rights activists were released earlier in the year, land rights activists continue to be harassed and intimidated at the hands of the authorities.

2015 was meant to finally see the resolution of the ongoing Borei Keila saga, whereby former Borei Keila residents had long been waiting for a resolution since their violent eviction in January 2012. However the disappointing decision announced by Phnom Penh City Hall on 13 November saw the majority of remaining families denied on-site housing as initially promised by Phanimex Company, and was met with outrage by the affected residents. Now four years since their eviction, the remaining affected residents of Borei Keila continue to seek adequate redress.

Positive developments: LGBT rights, social and economic rights

While undeniably the human rights situation in 2015 looks bleak in Cambodia, in some areas however there were promising signs of improvement. As mentioned in a blog post earlier this year, the RGC appeared relatively open to legislation protecting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, who often encounter discrimination in Cambodian society. However, as CCHR’s recently released report on the welfare of LGBT individuals points out, there is still a cultural lack of understanding in relation to the LGBT community, thus there is a long way to go before attitudes can be changed, even if the law is adapted to protect LGBT people.

It is also true that there has been some progress in the arena of economic and social rights: a healthy GDP growth in Cambodia in recent years, increased access to mobile and Internet technology, and emergence of a middle class have all contributed to an increased standard of living. Yet much of the economic prosperity generated is concentrated in Phnom Penh. In rural areas a few well-connected businessmen, senators and international corporations collect the huge profits earned through land concessions. Ultimately in 2015, basic healthcare, electricity and even clean drinking water remained a concern for many Cambodians.

Where to in 2016?

As 2016 arrives and the local and national elections draw closer, we can expect further shrinking democracy, with increased pressure from the RGC on dissenting voices both politically, and under the LANGO and other broadly drafted laws. Statements made by senior military leaders outlining their loyalty to the ruling CPP, along with warnings of “civil war”, by Prime Minister Hun Sen should he lose power, add the very real threat of physical violence to the already oppressive and hostile political atmosphere.

However, despite the RGC’s attempts to restrict fundamental freedoms, as citizens become increasingly aware of their rights, they continue to exercise them and advocate for them. Thus, there remains hope that through community advocacy efforts, the work of CSOs, and international pressure, the New Year will signal a new dawn in Cambodia, in which human rights are respected.

[1] See CCHR’s open letter to the Ministry of Interior, dated 21 August 2015 http://bit.ly/1mTiDWc

[2] The Law on the Organization and Function of the National Election Committee and the Law on Election of Members of the National Assembly