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.

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

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