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

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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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

Cambodian criminal justice system ignores children’s rights

Yesterday, CCHR released a Briefing Note that addresses the situation of Children in the Cambodian criminal justice systemOf the total of 2,258 monitored trials by CCHR’s Trial Monitoring Project between August 2009 and June 2012, 219 involved juveniles. Children require rights that offer them special care and protection, including when they are accused of infringing the law, as their needs differ to those of adults. They are therefore entitled to protections beyond those that adults are entitled to. However, the findings of the Briefing Note suggest that juvenile justice rights are largely ignored within Cambodia’s judicial system.

Juvenile detentionFor example, judges can impose a criminal penalty on juveniles as young as 14, despite the age of criminal responsibility being 18 in Cambodia. Criminal penalties are imposed on up to 50% of children charged with a felony, and they are therefore given the same criminal responsibility as an adult, meaning that their rights as a child are disregarded.

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A morning in the Phnom Penh Court of Appeal

This blog post is written by Lale Kuzu, former CCHR International Intern.

As a law graduate from the U.K, I have often found observing the hushed stillness of the Court of Appeal as daunting as sitting in a head teacher’s office regardless of whether you are present for discipline or reward. I was struck by that same feeling in the presence of the judges at the Phnom Penh Court of Appeal, with the judges in red robes with silk white neckties seated in grand high chairs peering down at the crowd below it.

This feeling of both fear and respect was present until the moment eleven defendants dressed in orange uniforms were escorted through the door, each waiting to be un-cuffed before being seated in the two rows in front of me. The hustle and bustle that accompanied the eleven defendants, with their friends and families in the aisle next to them, prison guards sitting with them and lawyers hovering behind them transported me to a whole new court room.

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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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UN Special Rapporteur tells it like it is

On the 24th of June representatives from CCHR attended the press conference held by Professor Surya P. Subedi, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, at the end of his most recent visit to Cambodia. As a United Nations Special Rapporteur, his role is to visit Cambodia twice a year to investigate the current human rights situation, and then report back to the UN Human Rights Council on his findings. Even though he is described as the “United Nations” Special Rapporteur, Professor Subedi is not employed by the UN, the idea being that he is able to offer an independent assessment and perspective as a result of his visits.

UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia

UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia’s press conference

The press conference was an initial summary of the result of his visit (full statement here in English and Khmer) and Professor Subedi will present a formal report to the UN in September. This was his 11th visit to the country in this role, so he was able to talk broadly about the human rights situation in Cambodia. Some of it was positive, but for the most part he was very concerned with what he found. Professor Subedi covered a broad range of human rights issues, from land and labor rights to access to democratic spaces, to reform of the judiciary, constitution, electoral and parliamentary frameworks, and other governance institutions.

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All Eyes on the Court of Appeal

CCHR Report – Fair Trial Rights in Cambodia, Monitoring of the Court of Appeal

The right to be judged fairly and impartially by an independent court is an absolute right that should never be violated. However, in Cambodia fair trial rights have long been an area of concern and with recent legislation having further weakened the independence of the judiciary; a heavy spotlight should be on the courts, judges and prosecutors.

CCHR’s Trial Monitoring Project has provided that spotlight since 2009 and has since built a bridge of dialogue between the courts and civil society to address individuals’ rights violations. The report released today by CCHR is the result of data gathered from 204 cases CCHR team monitored at the Court of Appeal in the past year and highlights the challenges individuals face regarding their right to a fair trial.

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The CPP votes to give itself power over the judiciary

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party has voted to give itself powers over the judiciary through a set of laws that bypass both the constitution and international standards guaranteeing an independent judiciary. Citizens have long felt the effects of a politicized judiciary, suffering from partial and unjust verdicts that have reflected the hand of the government rather than the application of the rule of law. This unofficial practice has now been cemented into law through a parliament free from opposition, scrutiny and debate.

After 10 years of waiting, it took only two months for the laws to be passed through the Council of Ministers, the National Assembly and the Senate. The secretly drafted laws were tactfully announced before a national holiday, in the knowledge that interested groups and media would be absent; release dates and information were bought back and forth preventing civil society from presenting an organized response. The laws were passed through a single party National Assembly amid an opposition boycott and were finally given the seal of approval by the Senate on Friday June 13th free from amendments or review.

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