Cambodian women are speaking up for their rights; it’s time we listen

The women of Boeung Kak Lake protest the destruction of their homes in 2012 (pictured centre: famous land activist Tep Vanny)

The women of Boeung Kak Lake protest the destruction of their homes in 2012 (pictured centre: famous land activist Tep Vanny)

Reflecting on International Women’s Day, CCHR looks at the Cambodian women who are challenging gender norms by fighting for their rights

In every facet of society, women across the world continue to possess fewer advantages while enduring greater threats to their safety and well-being. The abuse of women’s rights is considered by some as the concern of women, and women alone. This is not a ‘women’s issue’, it is a human rights issue.[1] In Cambodia, the simple act of a woman speaking out can be seen as defiant and abhorrent. Nevertheless, brave female activists are raising their voices amidst ongoing attempts from the authorities to silence them. As people held flash-mobs to raise awareness of women’s rights ahead of International Women’s Day, events planned by civil society groups to encourage and empower women in prison had to be cancelled due to new restrictions.

“Women continue to face discrimination based on negative social expectations and stereotypes”

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Land rights through the eyes of an advocate  

A look at Cambodia’s number one human rights issue via the life of one of its prominent defenders

Ly Siev Minh has lived here for as long as she can remember. It may not be perfect, but it’s home.

Her father loves it here, he would fight for her family’s right to be here, no matter what.

Minh lives in Phnom Penh, on a piece of land a company has decided it wants to build on, land it views as more valuable than her family. This means her father has had to fight for her family’s right to be here. He has fought hard, and long, and she is proud to have fought by his side. Guards hired by the company have put snakes in her house, her drinking water has been poisoned, she has been pushed to the ground by the company’s guards, cut by them, and watched her father be beaten by them.

Finally, her father was arrested, and when she searched for him, they arrested her too.

She is still in prison.

……

Cambodia is a country of stark contrasts; indescribable beauty sits alongside rampant and blatant human rights abuses at the hands of not only companies, but also the very government responsible for the protection of its people. Prominent among those abuses is the denial of Cambodians’ rights to land and homes, which the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia believes remains ‘the number one’ human rights issue facing the country. Continue reading

Take a Stance Against Impunity: CCHR Launches Campaign to End Impunity

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Today, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (“CCHR”) launches its annual End Impunity Campaign, marking the United Nations’ first International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists. CCHR is highlighting the rampant nature of impunity in Cambodia, and calling on people across Cambodia and the world to take a stance against it. To show the Royal Government of Cambodia (the “RGC”) the widespread public support for ending impunity, throughout November, we are collecting photos of individuals holding signs pledging to take a stance against impunity. These photos will be printed onto a giant poster and delivered to the Ministry of Justice on 2 December 2014, to push the RGC to take action.

Impunity, which means “without punishment” or “without consequence”, is rampant in Cambodia. Often, those who violate human rights are well-connected individuals, who go unpunished as a result of their status. Incidents of impunity vary from murder cases of human rights activists and journalists that are never investigated, to cases where security forces have used excessive violence against civilians and remain unpunished, to well-connected officials evading justice.

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Forced to Sign Away Their Rights

Over the past 10 days, two separate incidents have shown how far the situation facing human rights defenders (“HRDs”) is from meeting international human rights standards. Staff from two separate NGOs were arrested, held without charge and released only after signing “agreements,” which are little more than attempts by the government to stifle civil society and to restrict the ability of HRDs to promote and protect human rights.

On 9 September 2014, Ms. Meg Fukuzawa and Mr. Lida Sok, two employees of Equitable Cambodia, were investigating the human rights impacts of evictions that resulted from industrial sugarcane plantations in Oddar Meanchey province when police officers asked to accompany them to the police station where they were questioned for nearly 24 hours. Meg was only released after signing an agreement promising to not file a complaint over her detention. Equitable Cambodia, CCHR and other NGOs released a joint statement expressing our concerns over these arrests.

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Ending Impunity is Necessary for Democracy

Today – 15 September 2014 – is the International Day of Democracy, a day established by the UN General Assembly to encourage governments to strengthen programs aimed at promoting and consolidating democratic processes.

Yet here in Cambodia, today also marks the 1-year anniversary of the death of Mao Sok Chan, who was killed during last year’s post-election protests in Phnom Penh. But his death is the complete opposite of a celebration of democracy; instead it stands as a clear example of the way in which impunity continues to hinder the development of democracy in Cambodia.

Wanted Poster - Mao Sok Chan

Campaign poster from CCHR’s 2013 Campaign to End Impunity in Cambodia

On 15 September 2013, Mao Sok Chan was killed by a bullet fired by a security force on the Kbal Thnal bridge in Phnom Penh, which had been blocked off by the police as a demonstration calling for new elections was taking place. A year later, no transparent and independent investigation has been undertaken into the actions of the security forces on that night, despite promises by the government to investigate these events.

Instead, 3,000 riot police officers were given certification of appreciation a month after the fact to recognize their role in “controlling the escalation.”

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Hang Serei Oudom: A symbol of freedom or impunity?

Two years have passed since Hang Serei Oudom, a journalist reporting on illegal logging activities, was found brutally murdered in the trunk of his car in Ratanakiri province. Two years have passed, yet freedom of expression continues to be stifled, and a culture of impunity remains rampant within Cambodia.

One of CCHR's campaign posters from our 2013 Impunity Campaign

One of CCHR’s campaign posters from our 2013 Impunity Campaign

Hang Serei Oudom is one of the 12 journalists that have been murdered in Cambodia since 1994, and one of 619 journalists killed globally since 2004. Within Cambodia, each of these murders has been met with impunity. The failure to pursue the investigation and charge Hang Serei Oudom’s murderers, despite the seriousness of the crime, highlights the continuing power of the elite over the judicial system. Beyond this, Hang Serei Oudom’s death, along with many others, was used as a warning to others around the country, and was a direct attack on the right to freedom of expression.

Unfortunately, violence and intimidation are just one means used to undermine freedom of expression in Cambodia. This has been demonstrated by the RGC’s recent announcement of a pilot program to censor online content, which cites China and Syria as inspiration for the reform. The internet is essential for sharing knowledge and ideas, the growth of social movements, self-expression, and flagging human rights abuses. Most importantly, the internet permits democratic discussion that is restricted in other spheres. Instead, the new laws move to censor discussion and remove content that is critical of the ruling political party.

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The time for legislative transparency is now

With the recent passage of the three judicial reform laws without any civil society consultation, the issue of the lack of legislative transparency is an important one in Cambodia. As Cambodia’s two main political parties finalize a deal to end the year-long political deadlock and the opposition prepares to take its seats in the National Assembly, it is important to look at how legislative transparency can be increased in Cambodia, so that the new National Assembly passes any and all future laws in a transparent manner.

CCHR released a new Briefing Note today on the topic; you can read it in its entirety here, but we’ve also summarized some of the main points below.

What is legislative transparency?

The Transparency and Accountability Initiative defines “transparency” as when information is “presented in plain and readily comprehensible language and formats appropriate for different stakeholders” and “made available in sufficient time to permit analysis, evaluation and engagement by relevant stakeholders.”

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What Are Human Rights?

Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt of the United States holding a Declaration of Human Rights poster in English. November 1949. Credit; UN Photo

Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt of the United States holding a Declaration of Human Rights poster in English. November 1949. Credit: UN Photo

The Cambodian Center for Human Rights works to improve the human rights situation for all people in Cambodia. This is incredibly important work which can genuinely make a difference to the people of Cambodia. However, CCHR recognizes that not everyone knows what human rights are, or how their lives would change if all human rights were available to them.

The idea behind “human rights” is that there are certain activities which every individual, everywhere should be able to exercise or experience in their lives. Everyone has the right to life, and to live their lives freely and securely. It is built on the notion that human rights are universal, indivisible, and inalienable. “Universal” means that these rights apply to everyone, whether you’re male, female or transgender, no matter which country you or your family comes from, irrespective of which religion or political party you follow, and so on. “Indivisible” means that all of the rights are so connected that they cannot be experienced in full without all the other rights being fully realized as well. “Inalienable” means that human rights cannot be given away, they are an implicit part of being human.

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23 Reasons to Protest

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Protesters outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, 30 May 2014

Our tuk-tuk slows to a halt on Charles de Gaulle Boulevard.  Five of us, who have been piled on the sweaty pleather seats for the last twenty minutes, jump out of the vehicle and take in the surroundings.  The area is already swarming with people: sleepy-eyed police officers and security guards half-heartedly manning the black metal barricades, trial attendees waiting for the court doors to open, and passersby heading to work.

It is Friday, May 30th, and we are awaiting the court verdict for 23 human rights defenders and garment factory workers who have been detained since the beginning of January.  They are accused of instigating violence during strikes calling for minimum wage increases.

During the three days of the trial, CCHR and other human rights organizations noted that the defendants’ rights were violated on several occasions. The 23 were denied bail despite health concerns, initial access to their legal team, and adequate medical care. In addition, there was a complete lack of incriminatory evidence presented during the hearing, and the judge expressed an extreme bias in favor of the prosecution throughout the trial.

Several local and international CCHR staff, including myself, have arrived to monitor the trial and the protests taking place outside. Those inside will determine whether or not the defendants’ fair trial rights are respected, while those outside will observe the protests, operating as witnesses in case they turn violent.

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How could Cambodia’s Draft Cybercrime Law affect Internet users?

What is the purpose of the law?

In May 2012, the government of Cambodia announced that a Draft Cybercrime Law (“the Draft”) was in the works. Calls to see copies of the Draft by human rights organizations were ignored. However, an unofficial copy of the Draft was leaked to the public in April 2014. The supposed purpose of the law is to combat online criminal activities.The Draft criminalizes hacking, the stealing of data and the production of pornography on the Internet.

However, it seems the Draft has an additional hidden agenda. Asked about the need for a Cybercrime Law in May 2012, Press and Quick Reaction Unit spokesman Ek Tha explained to The Phnom Penh Post: “We need 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. We need to control this.” As such, it seems that the underlying purpose of the Draft is controlling information circulating on the Internet.

In fact, there is a lengthy Article in the Draft that regulates the sharing of information on the Internet.  Article 28 makes it a crime to create web content that is “deemed to hinder the sovereignty and integrity of the Kingdom of Cambodia,” to publish information (even if true) that is deemed to incite persons to commit anarchism, and to publish (retweet, repost, or forward an email) material that is “deemed to generate insecurity, instability, and political incohesiveness.” There are several more articles that regulate expression, including a provision that would punish online expression that incites or instigates prejudice based on political views.  This last provision will most likely be used to punish those critical of the actions of the ruling party.

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