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.

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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

Impunity: Calling for Justice

Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once remarked: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” These words resonate sharply when one considers impunity in Cambodia.

For more than a decade, many citizens in Cambodia have become victims of extrajudicial killings, including journalists and human rights defenders. In many cases, full investigations have never taken place and therefore the perpetrators not brought to justice; some of the cases have even been forgotten about.

Perhaps one of the most notable examples of impunity in Cambodia is the Mao Sok Chan case. During a clash with security forces in a demonstration at Monivong Bridge against the result of the national election in 2013, Mao Sok Chan, a motorbike courier, was fatally shot in the head during the chaos. The perpetrator remains at large, and the motive unanswered.

Photo of Mao Sok Chan's family during the photo exhibition of impunity on 2 November 2015 organized by Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, Photo: On Sovannak

Photo of Mao Sok Chan’s family during the photo exhibition of impunity on 2 November 2015 organized by Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, Photo: On Sovannak

While right groups and the victim’s family continue to push for the case to be investigated and not forgotten, the Cambodian government has taken no action to bring the perpetrator to justice.  In September this year, the spokesperson of the Ministry of interior announced that “Mao Sok Chan’s case should now be buried,” before further opining that “the disruptive protests challenging election results had caused the conditions leading to his death.”

Despite years passing after the incident, the wound still lingers, and the grief has not diminished whilst justice remains elusive.

In response to the Mao Sok Chan case, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights recently launched a campaign entitled “Never Forget”, with the purpose of reminding both the government and public not to forget the many victims of impunity or their families, who are calling for justice.

The Mao Sok Chan case vividly reminds us that overcoming impunity is perhaps the single most important undertaking facing Cambodia today. If there is to be any chance of overcoming impunity, a strong commitment from the government is crucial.

As a member of United Nations and a signatory to many international human rights instruments, Cambodia has an obligation to respect fundamental human rights.  If Cambodia wants to become a responsible global citizen then the government must ensure the immediate review and investigation of all outstanding cases of extrajudicial killings and other serious human rights violations, and bring those responsible to justice.

By having those who committed crimes identified and punished, Cambodia can better understand its own past, and finally ensure a future where human rights flourish and impunity ceases to exist.

On Sovnnak, former CCHR National intern