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

Special Rapporteur presents his final call for change

Yesterday, during the 27th session of the Human Rights Council, Professor Surya P. Subedi presented his last report as the United Nations (the “UN”) Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia.

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UN Special Rapporteur Surya P. Subedi. (c) CCHR

The work of the Special Rapporteur involves independently investigating the human rights situation by visiting Cambodia biannually, and reporting to the UN Human Rights Council. At the conclusion of the twelfth reporting period, from 1 July 2013 – 24 July 2014, and after fulfilling the maximum six-year term, the Special Rapporteur has a deep understanding of the challenges facing Cambodia. The candid and honest nature of the report is unsurprising following his press conference at the conclusion of his last visit to Cambodia in June.

The report expresses that overall the human rights situation is generally heading in a positive direction. The Special Rapporteur praises the Royal Government of Cambodia (the “RGC”) for adopting some of his recommendations, and for willingly meeting with him. He further powerfully asserts that:

‘The year 2013 was the year in which the Cambodian people found their voice, and the Special Rapporteur is convinced that Cambodia has embarked on a new path from which there is no turning back.’

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Women in Politics in Southeast Asia: Same same but different?

This post is written by Eng Sokha, Project Assistant at CCHR, and Juliette Rousselot, Consultant at CCHR.

Earlier this week, we had the honor of representing CCHR at a conference – “Women in Political Leadership in Southeast Asia 2014: Experiences, Challenges and Strategies” – held in Indonesia by CCHR’s partner organization, Kemitraan, where we discussed the state of women’s political leadership in Southeast Asia in 2014. The focus was on the experiences of women in politics, the challenges to increase that representation and the strategies we can use to increase that representation. We were accompanied by Ms. Sonket Sereyleak, Education and Gender Coordinator at COMFREL, and Ms. Keth Mardy, the Director of Legal Protection Department of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs of Cambodia, who both spoke on panels during the conference on the issue of increasing women’s political representation in Cambodia.

Participants from Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Timor Leste

Participants from Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Timor Leste

For the past 2 years, CCHR has been working as a part of a regional program – which includes other organizations from Indonesia, Malaysia, Timor Leste, and the Philippines – to increase women’s representation in politics throughout Southeast Asia. With just women constituting just 20% of Cambodia’s National Assembly, we are still far away from achieving true gender equity in politics.

However, the problem is not unique to Cambodia but present throughout all of Southeast Asia, where women seeking to participate in the political life of the nation – a right guaranteed under Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 7 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women – are denied this right because of discriminatory laws and policies, cultural and traditional barriers, and socio-economic factors. In fact, Asia has one of the lowest average percentages of women’s representation in national parliaments of all the world’s regions, at just 18.4%.

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What does electoral reform mean to youth?

On June 20th and 21st, CCHR hosted a workshop for youth to identify and discuss important issues related to electoral reform. The workshop introduced them to some key political analysts here in Cambodia and enabled them, in small groups, to discuss the issues that are most important to them: the voter list; the role of media during the elections, the National Election Committee (NEC), the rights and freedoms of voters during the elections, and election transparency.

A total of 42 youth participants, almost half of them women, attended the event, from different youth groups and institutions, including representatives from the Cambodian Indigenous Youth Association (CIYA), the Young Women’s Leadership Network (YWLN), Politikoffee, Cambodian Young Women’s Empowerment Network (CYWEN), the Harpswell Foundation, Change Maker, the Wildlife Project, the U.S. Ambassador’s Youth Council and the Research and Analysis Network. The discussions and outcomes of the workshop have been summarized in an Outcome Report, which you can read here, but some of the most important recommendations that youth have with regards to election reform have been highlighted in this video:

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