On the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples 2019, we celebrate Cambodia’s Indigenous Peoples’ rights

CCHR met with local communities and Indigenous People in Kratie Province in March 2019 to get an update on their challenging experiences with the issue of land dispute.

On the occasion of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, we wish to jointly celebrate Cambodia’s indigenous communities’ rights.

The rights of Indigenous peoples are guaranteed under Cambodian and International human rights law. These rights include the right to tradition, the right to religion, as well as the right to land and the right to free and informed consent.

Despite these guarantees, indigenous peoples in Cambodia have lost their land at an alarming rate due to large-scale logging of forests, resource extraction, infrastructure projects, and land concessions. In response to these challenges, the Royal Government of Cambodia (“RGC”) has, in theory, recognized collective land rights of indigenous peoples; the 2001 Land Law and the Sub-Decree No.83 on the Procedures of Registration of Land of Indigenous Communities provide for specific recognition of the concept of collective ownership of land, allowing indigenous communities to legally register their communal lands under collective land titles (“CLTs”).

Traditionally, indigenous peoples in Cambodia sustain their livelihoods through cultivating forested land, utilizing a technique known as shifting cultivation, as well as hunting wild animals and gathering forest by-products. In addition, the beliefs, traditions, and identities of indigenous communities in Cambodia are closely tied to the land, which carries major spiritual significance as a link to their ancestors and natural spirits. Despite the importance of land to indigenous communities and the comprehensive legal framework that protects their land rights, in practice the process of obtaining a CLT is lengthy and extremely complex, often subject to lengthy delays due to a lack of political will. Moreover, a lack of implementation of the law has led to Cambodia’s indigenous communities fast losing their communal land and natural resources. As of May 2019, only 24 out of 458 indigenous communities have received CLTs.

The alienation of indigenous people from their land threatens the very existence of Cambodia’s indigenous population. We therefore renew calls on the Royal Government of Cambodia to take appropriate steps to protect the rights of indigenous communities. In particular, the RGC should take concrete measures to facilitate the procedures for CLTs, in line with several recommendation accepted by Cambodia during it third Universal Periodic Review (“UPR”). These include the recommendations to “Take measure to simplify the allocation of community land concessions to indigenous peoples” (110.21), and to “Step up efforts in land matters, including through the effective and transparent implementation of measure to tackle land evictions, and provide the victims of land grabbing, particularly indigenous people, with fair compensation” (110.130).

Furthermore, indigenous rights defenders in Cambodia have faced increasing risks in conducting their legitimate work advocating for the promotion and protection of indigenous peoples’ rights, including acts of violence. We renew calls on the RGC to promptly take measures to protect human rights defenders (“HRDS”), and specifically ensure that HRDs are able to carry out their legitimate activities without fear or undue hindrance, obstruction or judicial harassment and other forms of harassment or violence. The RGC must also conduct impartial, thorough and effective investigations into all cases of attacks on and harassment and intimidation against HRDs, including indigenous rights activists, and bring the perpetrators to justice. This in line with Cambodia’s commitment under the UPR to implement a number of recommendations including the recommendation to “Protect […] human rights defenders, […] from harassment, arbitrary arrest and physical attacks, and investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of such attacks” (110.113).

Sopheap Chak, 8 August 2019.


On World Press Freedom Day, we call for protection of journalists and a free press in South East Asia and across the world

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Throughout Southeast Asia, too many journalists face risks as a result of their profession, including violence, harassment, and criminal charges. This is despite the fact that states are obligated to prevent, protect against, and prosecute attacks against journalists and human rights defenders, and uphold freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right which includes the right to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, in diverse forms. Its value is particularly high in the context of political discourse.

On World Press Freedom Day 2019, journalists and media outlets have the opportunity to celebrate their work and the multiple ways in which they contribute to a more transparent society. In democratic societies, the role of the media is crucial to ensure that reliable information reaches the public, including coverage of human rights abuses. Importantly, it is crucial that women are involved in both the content creation and creative control of media in order to ensure that gender-based violations come to light, and to provide a parity of gender perspectives and voices in the content that we read, hear and watch. However, if a landscape for independent media is not enabled and supported by states, a journalist’s work becomes perilous.

Two Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, jailed for their reporting on the massacre of Rohingya Muslims, recently had their latest appeal rejected by Myanmar’s Supreme Court. They were charged with violating a colonial-era secrets law for carrying out work to expose the atrocities committed by the country’s military, which has been accused of genocide by the United Nations. In the Philippines, repeated judicial harassment against journalist and free press advocate, and critic of President Rodrigo Duterte’s rule, Maria Ressa, has seen her arrested twice within two months. In Vietnam, the blogger Truong Duy Nhat, who was previously detained for two years due to his critical blogging on the Communist Party’s leadership, is currently being held without charge at a detention center in Hanoi after he went missing in Bangkok, where he had applied for refugee status.

Here in Cambodia, former Radio Free Asia (RFA) journalists Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin were held in pre-trial detention for over nine months on spurious charges of espionage, and finally released on bail in August 2018. The charges continue to hang over them. Both reported on a number of human rights issues including land disputes, workers’ rights, and the use of state violence. Over the last two years, measures taken by the government have seriously weakened free press in Cambodia, and today there is a shortage of independent, impartial and rigorous news reporting. The closure of the Cambodia Daily and RFA offices in Phnom Penh, as well as the sale of the Phnom Penh Post, have made truly independent media outlets scarce.

Due to this onslaught against its independent media, Cambodia fell one place in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index (WPFI), to 143 of 180 countries. Across Southeast Asia, six of the 11 countries in the region also dropped on the WPFI, while Malaysia leads the way as one of the three countries that moved up the index.

Freedom of information and freedom of expression are fundamental rights, and journalists must be permitted to exercise them in order to do their work, including by exposing corruption, criticizing public policy, and illuminating human rights violations, without fear of negative repercussions.

A journalist’s work should be secure, safe and supported. On World Press Freedom Day, we call for protection and support of our independent media, from publishers, from the government, and from the public.

Commentary by Sopheap Chak, Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR)’s Executive Director and SEAPA – Southeast Asian Press Alliance board of trustees chairperson on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day 2019

New Year brings welcome release of activists, but judicial reform still essential

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Khmer New Year is traditionally a time to reflect on the year that was, and look forward to what the future will bring. This year’s festivities began on a positive note, with the release of imprisoned land rights activists and opposition party members. However, while certainly cause for celebration, the significance of the move should not be over-stated: the releases are reportedly the result of political bargaining between the CNRP and ruling Cambodian People’s Party, following months of negotiations related to the reform of the National Election Committee. Without meaningful reform to strengthen judicial independence, politically motivated cases against critical voices and unfair trials are likely to continue.

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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.

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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

Cambodians stand together in solidarity for Human Rights Day 2014

Human Rights Day 2014 celebrations outside the National AssemblyToday, 10 December, marks International Human Rights Day (“IHRD”). Proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1950, IHRD aims to bring the world’s attention to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“UDHR”) as “the common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.”[1] However, despite the dramatic improvement in Cambodia’s human rights situation since the Khmer Rouge atrocities of the 1970s, human rights violations remain a serious problem in Cambodian society, with those from poor and marginalized communities particularly affected. IHRD is an important moment for the human rights community in Cambodia to raise their concerns, and over the last few days human rights defenders (“HRDs”), monks, activists and civil society groups marched from across the country to Phnom Penh. They gathered outside the National Assembly this morning to call for, among other things, improved labour rights, land rights, and the release of imprisoned fellow activists.

Yesterday, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (“CCHR”) launched an exhibition entitled, “Where is My Justice?”, which highlights Cambodia’s deeply rooted culture of impunity and shares the experiences of victims of human rights violations. Impunity affects a wide range of people in Cambodia, from demonstrators subjected to excessive use of force by the police and judicial harassment, to people forcibly evicted from their homes in illegal land grabs or members of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community who face discrimination and attacks; all have failed to receive justice for crimes committed against them. 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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Biography of Mrs. Hang Chenda, Land Activist in Preah Sihanouk Province

Hang Chenda: “I dream of seeing a Cambodia that is governed by the rule of law. I want justice and real democracy, and environmental sustainability.”

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Hang Chenda at a recent training workshop.

Hang Chenda has spent her life fighting for justice for those who have been unfairly evicted from their land and to end the environmental damage that accompanies it.

Chenda grew up in Ouorknha Heng commune, Prey Nub district, in Preah Sihanouk province. She lived with her father, an Officer at the Department of Public Works and Transportation, and her mother, a housewife, along with two brothers and four sisters. In 1980, she commenced her study in “Pum Kampenh”, a primary school in Preah Sihanouk province. However, given the family’s limited financial resources and her many siblings, Chenda ceased studying after fifth grade. Today, she has two children, and continues to reside in Preah Sihanouk province.

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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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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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