Is this the beginning of the end for digital activism in Cambodia?

In August 2015, minutes before sitting down to take an exam at Phnom Penh’s Khemarak University, 25-year old student, Kong Raya, was arrested and subsequently detained at Prey Sar prison. Two weeks earlier, he had asked on his Facebook page whether anyone would “dare to make a color revolution” with him. Despite claiming the post was intended more as “entertainment” and less as a veritable call to arms, the authorities, in a clear violation of freedom of expression, deemed him guilty of “incitement to commit a felony”. He was subsequently handed an 18-month prison sentence in March this year in the face of widespread indignation across civil society.

States have a moral obligation to protect their citizens and whilst this may sometimes require prosecuting citizens for speech “that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, Kong Raya’s post could hardly be perceived in this way. Unfortunately, his arrest is one of many similar incidents in the past year in which individuals have been punished for expressing themselves online, demonstrating a recent intensification in the Royal Government of Cambodia (“RGC”)’s internet censorship efforts. The RGC has justified such clear human rights violations as necessary in order to prevent a relapse into the anarchism of the Pol Pot era, as exemplified by the RGC’s Cambodian Human Rights Committee’s recent series of videos on “the excessive use of rights”, which portray people power as inherently violent and guaranteed to bring about the downfall of society.

Due to the internet’s late introduction in Cambodia – internet subscriptions were as low as 320,190 in 2010 but rose to 6,795,908 in 2015 – the internet has, to date, managed to remain a relatively free space for Cambodians to openly express their views. However, since the 2013 election, in which the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (“CNRP”) significantly dented the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (“CPP”) hold on power by successfully embracing the internet as a means of circumventing state censorship of traditional media sources, the RGC has increasingly turned its attention to prosecuting those that publish disagreeable online content.

For years, government censorship of the internet in Cambodia was conducted in a manner that belied any discernible underlying strategy. Websites, such as those of London-based transparency group Global Witness and Cambodian diaspora blog KI-Media, were temporarily blocked for posting content critical of the RGC and numerous initiatives, such as the plan to establish a “Morality Committee” to block websites deemed to be in conflict with national values, were proposed but later either condemned to the rubbish heap or poorly enforced. However, as internet penetration grew, the RGC was compelled to rethink its approach to online censorship in order to protect its position of power. 

In May 2012, the RGC first announced its plan to introduce a Cybercrime Law, which, according to the spokesman for the RGC’s Press Department, was “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”. The latest draft of the proposed law contains a number of worrying provisions and purposefully ambiguous language that has the possibility of lending itself to political manipulation. For example, Article (27), provides for the dissolution of legal entities, including NGOs, if individuals affiliated with the organization perpetrate ambiguously defined “cybercrimes”.

King Norodom Sihamoni promulgated a new Telecommunications Law on 7 December 2015, giving the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications (“MPT”) the power to order telecommunications providers to hand over data, systems and equipment and even to transfer control of telecommunication systems to the Ministry if circumstances deemed to threaten national security were to arise. Moreover, Article 97 criminalizes eavesdropping conducted by private individuals but authorizes such forms of surveillance when conducted by the MPT.

In lieu of the recently adopted Telecommunications Law and pending Cybercrime Law, the RGC repeatedly threatened and arrested individuals for posting critical online content, often invoking arguments citing defamation as a criminal offence by way of justification. Hun Sen himself has warned internet users planning on using “bad words” to insult him that it would take the government less than seven hours to find them. Since August 2015, no less than seven people have been arrested and 24 publicly threatened with prosecution for posting online comments, marking a turning point in the government’s previously inconsistent approach to online censorship.

Senator Hong Sok Hour was among the seven arrested since last August. Testament to the RGC’s continued interference in judicial matters, the Senator’s arrest came days after Prime Minister Hun Sen had personally called for his arrest during a speech. In contempt of his parliamentary immunity, Hong Sok Hour was charged with forgery and incitement and detained at Prey Sar prison for posting on Facebook a doctored version of a 1979 Cambodia-Vietnam Border Treaty in August. As his defense team has consistently argued, there was no evidence that Hong Sok Hour was even aware of the erroneous details contained in his post and posting a fake treaty on Facebook does not in itself constitute a crime. Thus, Hun Sen has effectively “criminalized a statement of historical inaccuracy as a means of cracking down on the political opposition, demonstrating that he has the power to arrest and imprison anybody, anytime”.

Unfortunately, the judicial harassment of individuals that have aired political grievances online threatens to lead to a culture of self-censorship in Cambodia. This amounts to a violation of freedom of expression, which is essential in the fight to preserve all other inalienable human rights by allowing individuals to challenge injustices; to hold government accountable to those it represents and to share and exchange ideas and information freely.

Since the 2013 elections, the RGC has increasingly sought to crackdown on political dissent expressed via the internet. Alongside arming itself with a legal arsenal to arbitrarily prosecute those that politically oppose it, the RGC has continually threatened and arrested individuals that post online criticism of its actions, even when such comments fall well within the boundaries of legitimate expression. The Court of Appeal’s decision to uphold the highly controversial 18-month sentencing of Kong Raya in July this year demonstrated that this unwavering opposition to freedom of expression when it threatens the reputation of the RGC is unlikely to change anytime soon. Given the recent spate of high profile defamation cases, exemplified by the ongoing trial of Kem Sokha, this is only likely to intensify as we approach the upcoming national elections in 2018.

The introduction of the internet to Cambodia once offered the Cambodian democratic project a glimmer of hope, offering Cambodians an opportunity to openly share ideas without fear of reprisal. As the RGC presses ahead with its introduction of repressive laws intent on outlawing freedom of expression in the Kingdom, these hopes are now being slowly extinguished. With the traditional media already under the control of the RGC and the staging of large-scale non-violent public protests near impossible, Cambodians risk losing their last remaining arena for open, political debate.

Euan Black, CCHR International Intern

 

 

 

After-Shocks of Turkish Coup Attempt Felt in Cambodia

Although recent domestic focus has been on Kem Ley’s death and funeral, second-order effects of the 15 July coup d’etat attempt in Turkey are being felt in Cambodia, as well.

The Erdogan government’s reaction to the coup attempt has seen more than 13,000 servicemen detained, as well as the dismissal of 5,000 judges and prosecutors. Many of the purge victims have been targeted due to alleged connections to Fethullah Gulen and his Gulen Movement, which the Turkish government alleges to be behind the coup attempt. Its reach now threatens to extend to Cambodia.

On 18 July, Turkish Ambassador Ilhan Khemal Tug requested that the Royal Government of Cambodia (“RGC”) close down Zaman schools within Cambodia. The two private institutions, Zaman International School and Zaman University, have been in Phnom Penh for nearly two decades. These schools were founded by a member of the Gulen Movement. Parent company Zaman Co Ltd, however, denies any affiliation with the Gulen Movement beyond a spiritual connection. Chum Sounry, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, responded that the RGC would seriously consider the Turkish request. As of 2 August, however, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport has maintained that its technical mandate does not extend to what it sees as purely a “political matter.”

Meanwhile, a video posted on social media on 17 July by Som Sovanara, a Cambodian resident of Canada, called on soldiers to prepare to move against the RGC. Since then, contradicting claims have emerged regarding Som Sovanara’s identity and military service history.   While Sovanara claims to have served between 2007 and 2010, Lieutenant General Srey Deuk claims he hired Sovanara for less than half a year without a contract.On the other hand, the Defense Ministry has denied finding any trace of Sovanara in its records.

Fear of an impending coup has also been exacerbated by the redeployment of armored units and the Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit from border regions to the capital city. Videos showing the convoys appeared on social media around the same time as Som Sovanara’s video. The Defense Ministry claims that the tanks are being moved to Phnom Penh for repairs.

More recently in August, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was even quoted at the Khmer Rouge tribunal when the defense for Nuon Chea drew a parallel between Khmer Rouge attitudes and the rhetoric used in the wake of the Turkish coup attempt.

Some mystery and controversy still surrounds the Turkish coup attempt, with some claiming that Erdogan himself had a hand in it. Meanwhile, in Cambodia, public anxiety, cynicism towards authority, and contradicting reports have put people on edge. Time will tell whether this was merely an odd coincidence of events, a true coup plot, or an elaborate hoax.

Ivan Kanzaki, CCHR International Intern

The draft Trade Union Law: restricting the right to association

Cambodia is edging ever closer to adopting a new law on trade unions, despite heavy criticism from workers, civil society organizations (“CSOs”) and relevant stakeholders.

The draft Trade Union Law (“TUL”) will be sent to the National Assembly for debate next Monday, on 04 April 2016. In a last-ditch attempt to dissuade the National Assembly from adopting this draconian law, independent unions have announced their intention to stage a large-scale protest outside the National Assembly on the day of the debate.

If passed in its current form, the draft TUL, which was approved by the cabinet on 13 November 2015, will impose arbitrary restrictions on the formation and operation of unions and, in so doing, will violate the rights of workers to freely join organizations of their own choosing (freedom of association) and to collectively bargain with their employers and local authorities. These rights are enshrined within international human rights law, which Cambodia is constitutionally obliged to adhere to.

As with the recent controversial Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (“LANGO”),[1] the draft TUL contains articles that render it “open to arbitrary or political-motivated interpretations by the courts”, insofar as it prohibits, in purposefully ambiguous terms, unions from acting “contrary to public order” and from causing “trouble with the only objective of being of service to a political tendency”.[2]

Despite the existence of comprehensive domestic and international legal frameworks that promote and protect human rights in Cambodia, in reality, the government, as evidenced by the recent introduction of laws such as the LANGO and the Telecommunications Law, does not shy away from reneging on its human rights obligations.

Trade unions have welcomed some changes in the most recent draft; most notably the lowering of the minimum number of workers required to start a union from 20 to 10 and the relaxing of the eligibility requirements for union leadership and criteria for obtaining “most representative status”. However, the draft TUL still fails to meet international labor law standards and, by calling for the mandatory registration of unions and enforcing limitations on union activities, infringes upon the ability of Cambodians to exercise their fundamental freedoms of association, expression and assembly. The draft TUL effectively criminalizes protests and demonstration by making it unlawful to “bring about a traffic jam”, demonstrating just how far the government is willing to go to crackdown on any form of political dissent.[3]

The provisions for a mandatory registration scheme and limitations upon the activities of unions provided for within the draft TUL irrevocably undermine Cambodia’s legal commitments under international human rights law. Such provisions violate the rights to freedom of assembly and expression; given that these are fundamental rights, Cambodians should not need to seek permission from the government before exercising them.

As Maina Kiai, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association has affirmed, Individuals involved in unregistered associations should indeed be free to carry out any activities, including the right to hold and participate in peaceful assemblies”.[4]

Article 29 of the draft TUL provides cause for further concern, insofar as it allows for the dissolution of a trade union in the event of ‘misconduct’ of an individual leader. ‘Misconduct’ does not even necessarily entail criminal conduct, meaning the government will be able to dissolve a union simply if it does not like the actions of an individual leader. This is particularly worrying in the light of recent events in which trumped-up charges have been brought against union leaders for alleged criminal activity during protests and demonstrations.

The events of 08 February 2016 represent one especially alarming example of governmental suppression of trade union activity. Four independent labor organization leaders were charged with intentional violence, obstructing public officials and blocking traffic in connection to an on-going protest against Capitol Tour’s unlawful dismissal of 45 bus drivers. None of the leaders were even present at the protest. These charges are indicative of a systematic governmental campaign to restrict freedoms of assembly, expression and association in Cambodia.[5] To make matters worse, Article 29 does not provide for an appeal process for unions and employer associations that have either been dissolved or had their registration applications denied.

In reaction to the poor reception the previous draft TUL received amongst CSOs, labor organizations and human rights commentators, the government delayed the law’s proposal to the National Assembly and announced on 10 December 2015 the creation of a bipartisan committee to examine the law. Yang Sophoan, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, was one of many union leaders to voice concerns over the proposed TUL. She said the law “doesn’t protect the interests of workers or unions” and considered the requirement for unions to provide financial reporting particularly worrying.[6] The committee concluded its proceedings on 19 January 2016, having made very few amendments to the draft.

As it stands, the draft TUL fails to uphold the rights of workers as codified in a number of human rights treaties and calls from unions to bring the law closer to international labor law standards appear unlikely to be answered. If passed, it will have a devastating effect on the ability of Cambodians to exercise their rights to freedom of assembly and expression and will effectively ban protests, a mainstay of any democratic society.

Euan Black, CCHR International Intern

[1] Phnom Penh Post, ‘Assembly passes LANGO’ (14 July 2015) Available at: http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/assembly-passes-lango

[2] Human Rights Watch, Cambodia: Revise Union Law to Protect Worker Rights (17 Dec 2015) Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/12/17/cambodia-revise-union-law-protect-worker-rights

[3] Human Rights Watch, Cambodia: Revise Union Law to Protect Worker Rights (17 Dec 2015) Available at: <https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/12/17/cambodia-revise-union-law-protect-worker-rights>

[4] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, para. 56, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/20/27 (21 May 2012)

[5] CCHR, ‘Escalation of Violent Repression of Trade Union Activities’ (Factsheet) (March 2016) Available at: http://cchrcambodia.org/admin/media/factsheet/factsheet/english/2016_03_09_CCHR_Fact_Sheet_Escalation_of_Violence_Against_Trade_Unions_ENG.pdf

[6] Voice of America, ‘Labor Leaders Fear Union Law Will Pass Without Meaningful Changes’ (06 January 2016) Available at: http://www.voacambodia.com/content/labor-leaders-fear-union-law-will-pass-without-meaningful-changes/3133580.html

Setting Examples: Women in Leadership

GVeX

Participants from the Global Voices Exchange (#GVeX) in Marseilles, France

By Chak Sopheap

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to go on missions to Washington DC and Marseille and I was able to engage in valuable and constructive discussions with senior government officials and fellow civil society leaders. Besides this, I had the pleasure of meeting with some exceptionally impressive individual leaders who are unwaveringly committed to the promotion of human rights in their communities and I learned a huge amount from my interactions with these individuals. In particular, it was fantastic to meet with some extraordinary women leaders who are providing a shining example for women in leadership in civil society and more generally around the world.

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As part of my mission to Washington DC between 09 and 12 February, it was a privilege to be invited to the White House to meet with US National Security Advisor Susan Rice and nine civil society leaders from South East Asia as part of the ‘Stand with Civil Society: ASEAN Consultations’ in advance of the US-ASEAN Summit. The meeting was an excellent opportunity to discuss problems facing civil society and share experiences and strategies with fellow civil society leaders. Other than the senior level of the meeting, I was most struck by the exceptionally respectful, thoughtful and perceptive style of leadership and personality of Susan Rice during the meeting, which was at times fairly frantic. For example, Susan Rice repeatedly encouraged an activist from a country in which activists are often repressed to contribute her thoughts and experiences. She was reluctant to speak because some of the other participants in the meeting continuously tried to speak over her and also partly because of her country’s political culture. It was impressive to see how Susan Rice ensured all the participants at the meeting were given the space and opportunity to freely express themselves and her considerate approach to encouraging the discussion of diverse perspectives and experiences was remarkable. The perceptive leadership style of Susan Rice and the conscientious manner in which she conducts herself are truly inspiring and make her a wonderful example for women leaders around the world.

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Following the meeting, the US National Security advisor issued a statement reiterating the “United States’ steadfast commitment to sustaining and supporting civil society in Southeast Asia and around the world”.[1] In addition, I also had the opportunity to meet with other senior government officials, including Deputy Secretary Anthony Blinken, Assistant Secretary Tom Malinowski, and Deputy Assistant Secretary Scott Busby, and prominent human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law. These meetings were very useful as we were able to discuss human rights abuses in Cambodia as well as the domestic and international strategies that can be used to challenge such violations. Alongside these meetings, I was invited to deliver a speech at an event organized by the association of Cambodian Americans for Human Rights and Democracy. With roughly 300 members of the Cambodian diaspora attending the Valentine’s Day celebration, it was the perfect opportunity for me to stress the importance of the active participation of every Cambodian citizen regardless of who and where we are, to give back to society and this could be the perfect expression of our solidarity and love. I was also interviewed by Voice of America Cambodia.

I then visited Marseille in France in order to attend an event focused on digital rights and advocacy. as part of Global Voices Exchange, ‪#‎GVeX, aimed at developing training and mentoring frameworks for the practice of advocacy, both online and offline, in the global south.

Throughout the five day training and mentoring program for advocacy strategies, I was lucky enough to meet with remarkable individuals who all shared the same passion and common values to support better governance, enable a healthy environment for civil society and empowering individuals to advocate for basic freedoms in their communities. Their determination and enthusiasm to make a difference and help to build a prosperous and liberal society in their communities was truly remarkable and I personally learned a huge amount from hearing about their experiences.

During both of these missions it was an honor to meet with a wide variety of inspirational leaders, from the White House to the activists gathered in Marseille. The determination of so many people with different backgrounds to contribute to the promotion of a liberal democracy and human rights in their own communities was very encouraging. It was especially impressive to meet with some extraordinary women leaders who conduct themselves in an extremely resolute and perceptive manner in order to ensure a wide variety of views and perspectives are properly heard.

Chak Sopheap is the Executive Director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights

[1] Office of the US National Security Advisor, ‘Statement by National Security Council Spokesperson Ned Price on National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice’s Meeting with Southeast Asian Civil Society Leaders’, The White House, 11 February 2016 < https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/02/11/statement-national-security-council-spokesperson-ned-price-national >

A Visit to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia

On Wednesday 09th, December, 2015 my colleagues and I were granted a golden opportunity to make a special visit to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (the “ECCC”). One national volunteer, four national interns and five international interns from the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (“CCHR”) participated in the visit. Through the afternoon our group attended a public trial hearing of case 002/02, and met for a briefing with two international co-prosecutors, and two international defense counsel from the defense support section.

The ECCC was established in January 2006. It is usually known by Khmer people as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. The ECCC is a hybrid tribunal because it is composed of both national and international personnel, and applies both domestic and international law. The trial aims to be conducted in conformity with international standards of justice. The scope of the ECCC’s jurisdiction includes a temporal jurisdiction, personal jurisdiction, and subject matter jurisdiction. The court’s temporal jurisdiction covers the period of Democratic Kampuchea, the so-called Khmer Rouge Regime. The period of this regime accounts for three years, eight months, and twenty days, which had spanned from 17 April 1975 to 6 January 1979. The personal jurisdiction is limited to only the senior leaders and those most responsible for crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge Regime. The subject matter jurisdiction of ECCC includes crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, destruction of cultural property during an armed conflict, crimes against internationally protected people under the 1961 Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations, and domestic criminal law (torture, murder, and religious persecution under the 1956 Cambodia Penal Code).

At the beginning of our visit, we attended a public trial hearing of case 002/02 which concerned allegations of genocide of the Cham and Vietnamese populations in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge, grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, forced marriages and rape, purges, persecution of Buddhists, as well as other crimes against humanity. These crimes allegedly occurred at four security centers, three worksites and the Tram Kok Cooperatives. During the trial, one witness, named Oum Sun, was interrogated by two lawyers for the civil parties and by two lawyers from the defense.

After joining the hearing, we went to meet four international staff of the ECCC. During the meeting, we listened to their brief description of the scope of ECCC’s jurisdiction, establishment and structure of the hybrid court, its procedure of judicial process, and the challenges facing legal staff. The two international lawyers for the defense and two the international co-prosecutors raised similar concerns and challenges which they confront during their performance of duty.

One of their challenges raised by the trial counsel was the major difference between common law system and the civil law system. This hybrid court is designed to apply both national and international law, yet is supposed to be within the Cambodian national jurisdiction. Two international lawyers emphasized that their implementation and interpretation of law is sometimes at odds with that of their Cambodian colleagues, as each draws on experience in different legal systems. Given the contradiction, international lawyers have to reconcile their understanding of their own national legal systems with the unique identity of the ECCC, especially if they come from common law-based countries such as the USA or the UK. If the civil law system doesn’t match their common law system, this may create obstacles in terms of trial procedure and process. This problem is hard to surmount and can even result in stalemates in the progress of the trials.

The second challenge raised by counsel was the translation of court proceedings. Three languages are formally used in this court: French, English, and Khmer. Most of the foreign staff are not able to read and understand all three languages, so they must solely rely on the translator and interpreter. The dependence on translators and interpreters can certainly hinder them from conducting a duly comprehensive investigation, discovering solid evidence, and making a profoundly detailed analysis of the facts. Translation issues also impact on fair trial rights for defendants, because neither the counsel nor the defendants themselves can know whether the translator is impartial, professional, or independent. Our group saw for ourselves how translation inadequacy can be a significant issue, as we observed that during the trial, details were lost in translation, slowing the progress of the trial and creating confusion, especially when questioning witnesses. As for the impact of translation on the prosecution, translation issues also impact on their duties. When details are lost in translation, and counsel are not able to fully understand proceedings, this obligation becomes difficult to fulfill. Therefore, the language barrier in the court not only causes delays, but also impact on the fair trial rights of the defendants.

The last challenge for lawyers in the ECCC is external pressure. The pressure might arise from the presumption of the defendants’ guilt by Cambodian people and the international population. Conversely, it may stem from the Cambodian Government’s resentment of UN interference in the Cambodian legal system. The Government, which itself contains fellow ex-Khmer Rouge cadres, would prefer to protect some of those on trial, and those subject to outstanding arrest warrants. As such, the judges may face government pressure to prove the defendants innocent. In turn, international law may not be fully applied in this court and international standard of justice may not be reached. External pressure might also come from the fact that the UN has spent so much time and money setting up the ECCC, so finding the defendants innocent might appear to make this effort futile.

As such, I believe the result of the trial could be unfair to the defendants. This appears to be supported by previous cases. For instance, after the case 002/01 was finished, both defendants filed an appeal to the court against the judgement. However, even on appeal the appellate court is also under the same pressure from public pressure, UN demands, and potential Cambodian government interference.

In short, the three major challenges of the international staff of ECCC are: external pressure, language barriers, and the discrepancies between the common law and civil law systems. These three barriers seriously affect the procedure of the ECCC in ensuring a fair judgment for both victims and defendants. The delays caused by these challenges can strongly impact the trial; the age of both witnesses and defendants means that inefficiency might ultimately frustrate the purpose of the trial, if defendants pass away before it reaches completion. Theoretically, these shortcomings should be overcome, so that they do not affect the results of the judgment and lead to deadlock. I vigorously hope that their concerns will be tackled as soon as possible, before Cases 003 and 004 are heard, in the pursuit of justice for both defendants and victims.

On behalf of the national interns, I would like express my gratitude for the considerable awareness of the trial process of the ECCC that we gained from the four international staff at the ECCC. The ECCC plays a crucial role in ensuring justice for Cambodian victims and other nationals whose relatives perished during the Khmer Rouge regime. It also acts as a role model for the domestic judicial system in Cambodia to imitate, in order to achieve an independent and impartial judicial system. A fair and independent domestic judiciary would promote justice, the rule of law, and right to a fair trial throughout Cambodia.

Kruy Kimsan, CCHR National Intern

2015 – A New Dawn For LGBT Rights?

Recent developments have stoked optimism that 2015 could be the year that heralds a promising new era for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (“LGBT”) rights in Cambodia.

As a whole, the status of LGBT rights in Cambodia is in a somewhat confused state; whilst there are no explicit laws that directly discriminate on the basis of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (“SOGI”), equally no legislation exists that provides for equality. Furthermore, the absence of legislation is compounded by societal forces which are often unaccommodating to a person’s SOGI, frequently resulting in discrimination.

Globally, a number of significant events in 2015 highlight the worldwide advancement in the recognition of LGBT rights. Particularly noteworthy was the decision in June of the US Supreme Court that the refusal to grant marriage certificates to same-sex couples was unconstitutional, thereby conferring legality nationwide on same-sex marriage.  Furthermore, the following month Italy incurred the wrath of the European Court of Human Rights, the court ruling the country’s prohibition on recognizing civil unions or same-sex marriages constitutes a violation of human rights.  Meanwhile, 2015 also saw the decriminalization of homosexuality in Mozambique, making it one of the few African countries where same-sex relationships are legal.

Perhaps the most significant development was the passage of Nepal’s new constitution, which enshrines into law the recognition of genders other than male and female, and bans discrimination by state and judicial authorities against those from “sexual and gender minorities.”  In doing so, Nepal became the first ever country in Asia to adopt equal rights for LGBT people into its constitution.

It is hoped that events in Nepal can prove a catalyst for change in Cambodia. Indeed, even before the adoption of Nepal’s constitution, there were tangible signs indicating the Cambodian Government may be slowly becoming more receptive to LGBT rights.  In particular, the 2007 update of the Civil Code which removed the explicit ban on same-sex marriage and adoption can be seen as an example of this changing dynamic.

In response to Nepal’s news, a government spokesman affirmed that same-sex couples were free to marry in Cambodia. When challenged by civil society organizations and businesses, including CCHR, to introduce specific legislation pertaining to LGBT people, the government responded by stating that the LGBT community should continue to petition for such a law if they want to achieve its realization.

It is hoped that in response to such pressure from civil society, the Cambodian government will seize upon the opportunity to become a beacon for the furtherance of LGBT rights in Asia and at the same time boost the country’s international image and economic interests. Maybe, just maybe, 2015 will prove to be the turning point………

James Leach,  CCHR International Intern

Internet Freedom in Cambodia

CCHR - Computer and Handcuffs

Over the last month, there has been a litany of stories breaking that highlight the potential pitfalls for Cambodian citizens in their use of the internet.

Many Cambodians use the internet not only to keep in touch with friends, but also to keep up-to-date with news and participate in public affairs. Facebook is particularly popular.

However, successive stories have broken recently where a person’s online activity has got them into hot water with the authorities. Perhaps most notably is the case of a senator from the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (“SRP”) who was arrested for treason for posting on Facebook what was supposedly a treaty relating to the Cambodia-Vietnam border, a hot topic in current political debate. The senator’s arrest was purportedly made at the personal request of the Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen. Furthermore, as a result of the furore, three CNRP members thought to be linked to the Facebook post have now fled Cambodia with a view to being granted asylum in the West.

Perhaps more worrying is the story of Kong Raya, a 25 year-old student of political science at a Phnom Penh university, who was arrested last month for incitement as a result of posting a message on Facebook calling for a color revolution “to change the regime for Khmer society”.

Ominously, these stories coincide with what are thought to be ongoing efforts by the government to implement a Cybercrime Law, which observers and analysts fear will be used by the authorities to stamp out online criticism. Furthermore, it has been reported that the government intends to establish a new department tasked with monitoring and clamping down on “online crimes” in the name of, amongst other things, national security. Although as of yet no details have emerged as to what type of activity constitutes an online crime, it is feared by human rights activists that the department would strangle online activity deemed critical of the government and further curb freedom of expression.

Concerns about the government’s proposals center on what type of online activity will be deemed criminal and therefore prompt action from the authorities. It is feared that innocuous comments viewed as critical to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) will be classified as a threat to national security and attract heavy criminal sanctions for the author. This way, the government can further silence opposition voices. This is of particular concern since most of the media in Cambodia is controlled by the CPP and to date the internet has provided one of the few forums by which opposition voices can be heard.

There are also concerns regarding the transparency of the government’s intentions. Indeed, the proposed Cybercrime Law has been in the making for a number of years now, yet only a leaked draft has emerged. It is feared that the law will be passed with little, if any, consultation with civil society.

It may be acceptable under certain circumstances for the authorities to take action to curb online activity and restrict freedom of expression. Indeed, many governments around the world do so as a preventative measure against terrorism. However, such interference should only be permitted in exceptional circumstances which are clearly defined by the law, and when restrictions are necessary and proportionate. To do so otherwise could violate Cambodia’s international human rights obligations and lead to an attack on the fundamental right to freedom of expression, further strangling a right scarcely enjoyed by Cambodians.

James Leach, CCHR International Intern

A Morning at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia

On Wednesday 29 August 2015, I had the chance to be part of a CCHR delegation, welcomed by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (“ECCC”) for an educational exchange. Our delegation attended part of a hearing before the Trial Chamber and met with representatives from various sections of the ECCC. It was a valuable opportunity for me to learn more about the mission of the ECCC, its working methods, and the practical difficulties faced when delivering justice.

The ECCC, commonly referred to as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, was created in 2006 following negotiations between the Royal Government of Cambodia and the United Nations. Its goal is to try perpetrators of crimes committed between 1975 and 1979 during the Khmer Rouge regime of Democratic Kampuchea. This hybrid tribunal – hybrid because it is a mix between international criminal law and Cambodian law – is competent to prosecute senior leaders of the Democratic Kampuchea regime and those who are most responsible for having committed serious crimes over this period. The ECCC prosecutes and tries persons charged under both international criminal law (genocide; crimes against humanity; grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions; destruction of cultural property; and crimes against internationally protected persons) and domestic law (homicide; torture; and religious persecution).

We started the visit by attending a hearing in case 002/02, which is currently on trial. Case 002 was split in September 2011 into two separate trials. At the end of the first trial (case 002/01), Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea were found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life imprisonment on 7 August 2014. They both appealed the conviction issued by the Trial Chamber.

During the hearing, the Trial Chamber heard the testimony of a witness recalling the alleged events that happened at the Trapeang Thma Dam worksite in Banteay Meanchey Province. The witness was questioned by the Defence over working conditions at the site in 1977 and allegations of forced marriages.

Our delegation then met with members of the Public Affairs Unit, the Office of the Co-Investigating Judges, the Office of the Co-Prosecutors and the Lead Co-Lawyers (Civil Parties) section. This exchange provided me with an opportunity to learn more about the nature of proceedings before the ECCC. Discussions were focused on the procedural specificities governing the judicial process with a particular emphasis on the investigative stage and the fundamental role of victims in the ECCC’s proceedings. Speakers also discussed the practical difficulties faced when investigating and prosecuting the alleged crimes. Entanglements between different systems of law, political interference, and the fact that the crimes happened almost 40 years ago are all challenges that are faced by the ECCC.

As an intern involved in the CCHR’s Judicial Reform Project, I particularly benefited from the expertise of the speakers regarding fair trial rights and due process of law. In carrying out its mission, the ECCC seeks to act as a positive influence on the Cambodian judicial system, where adherence to fair trial standards is often lacking. Through training provided to national judges, Cambodian lawyers, and other relevant stakeholders, the ECCC aims to build a lasting legacy in domestic Cambodian legal and judicial practice.

While concerns regarding the lack of judicial independence and the weak separation of powers remain widespread in Cambodia, I hope that those initiatives will help the country to move forward on a path to an independent and impartial Judiciary.

More details about the Khmer Rouge Tribunal are available on the ECCC’s website.

Julien GUIET, CCHR International Intern

Cambodia Commemorates Khim Sambo’s Death

(cc) CCHR

(cc) CCHR – Forum on Independent and Professional Media in Cambodia, 30 April 2015

Last Saturday, Cambodia commemorated the seven year anniversary of the killing of Khim Sambo and his 21-year-old son Khat Sarinpheata. They were both shot on 11 July 2008 by two unidentified men near the Olympic stadium in Phnom Penh, after they had finished exercising. Khim Sambo died on the scene while his son succumbed to his injuries the following day at the hospital.

Khim Sambo, 47, was an opposition journalist who had been working since 1997 for the Moneakseka Khmer, a Khmer newspaper aligned with the opposition leader Sam Rainsy. He had frequently wrote about allegations of corruption among the members of the government and was heavily critical towards Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

The killing happened less than two weeks before Cambodia’s National Assembly election and after Khim Sambo criticized high ranking officials in the ruling party; the timing of his murder suggested possible political motives. A month before Khim Sambo’s murder, the Moneakseka Khmer’s editor and candidate to the national election for the then opposition Sam Rainsy Party, Dam Sith, had been arrested after the newspaper raised concerns over the role of the minister of foreign affairs during the Democratic Kampuchea.

Unfortunately, Khim Sambo’s case is not isolated. Such killings have increased over the past years. Since 1994, at least 13 journalists have been killed. A large majority of the killings has remained unpunished. For example, to date, no one has been held accountable for Khim Sambo’s killing, despite national and international civil society organizations repeatedly called for the establishment of an independent commission of enquiry. In the same vein, following the 2012 killing of Serei Oudom, a journalist reporting for Virakchun Khmer Daily, judicial authorities reportedly refused to carry out thorough investigations. Speaking in the Phnom Penh Post, Shawn Crispin, Senior Southeast Asia Representative of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalist, commented that “Cambodia has an impunity problem, one that has intensified in recent years with the unresolved killing of political and environmental journalists”.

Allegations of restrictions over the media are nothing new. Whilst already weakened, independent journalists in the country continue to be subject to censorship, threats, arrests and murders. Intimidations by powerful actors also remain widespread, preventing journalists from carrying out their pivotal role in strengthening democracy and public debate. This is particularly true concerning those who are not affiliated to the government or the ruling party, which owns and controls most of the media.

In addition, the use of the state apparatus to intimidate, coerce and silence journalists remain widespread. The Cambodian legislative corpus is largely used by politicians in legal cases against journalists or media representatives. For instance, they are often charged through vaguely worded provisions such as articles 305 and 306 of the Criminal Code relating to defamation; 307 and 308 of the Criminal Code relating to public insult.

Similarly, media’s freedom of expression is undermined by provisions contained in the Press Law 1995 which criminalize contents that may affect “national security and political stability” (article 12), “the good customs of society” (article 14), or that “humiliates or contents national institutions” (article 13). Such formulations result in a large scope of the incrimination offering to the authorities the possibility to intimidate and prosecute dissident voices while exercising their fundamental freedom of expression.

Pursuant to its international legal obligations, the Royal Government of Cambodia shall take genuine steps to uphold media freedom, so allowing journalists to safely work and express views thoroughly, freely and independently. Unfortunately, last year, following its second Universal Periodic Review, the Royal Government of Cambodia rejected four recommendations including one aiming at strengthening media’s freedom and independence. The said recommendation required Cambodia to abrogate legal provisions contained in the Penal Code and in the Press law relating to defamation and publication of false information. Most recently, the Human Rights Committee also encouraged Cambodia to decriminalize defamation and to bring other provisions impacting the freedom of expression into line with international standards.

Outside the anniversary of Khim Sambo’s killing, CCHR wish to express its solidarity with journalists who despite being threaten in their everyday life continue to report independent news in Cambodia so enabling citizens to make informed choices and participate in public life.

Julien Guiet, CCHR International Intern

NGOs Urge the Government to Stop and Consult on NGO Law

stop and consult image

Civil society organizations (“CSOs”) across Cambodia and beyond are urging the government to stop rushing to adopt a secret new draft Law on Associations and Non Governmental Organizations (“LANGO”), which threatens to seriously undermine fundamental rights in the country, and hold public consultations.

The last draft of the law was seen in 2011, lying dormant until May when Prime Minister Hun Sen declared that it would be passed that month. Refusing to release the new draft, speculation as to its content and potential impact has been growing steadily. On 5 June 2015 the Council of Ministers approved the new text, and a leaked version has been widely distributed. Speaking in the Phnom Penh Post, Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said if passed in its current form the law would be “an unmitigated disaster for civil society.”

The Law

The draft makes no distinction between community based organizations and other kinds of association, and in theory could be interpreted broadly to apply to any type of community group or meeting. All NGOs and associations will be subject to mandatory registration requirements and will be prohibited from engaging in any activities if not registered. These restrictive provisions lead to several questions as to exactly how the registration process will work, and in theory would give the authorities broad powers to restrict the legitimate activities of a wide range of organizations.

The draft also increases the burden of reporting requirements, requiring that NGOs provide the government with copies of all of their reports, proposals and financial agreements submitted to donors. Such documents may contain sensitive information that should remain private. For example, details about human rights defenders who might fear retaliation from the authorities as a result of their legitimate activism.

CCHR has joined a solidarity effort of local and international CSOs urging the government to “Stop and Consult” on the LANGO and other laws that could have a negative impact on human rights. Chak Sopheap, CCHR’s Executive Director also joined other Cambodian CSO representatives on an advocacy trip to Washington DC, meeting officials from congress, the White House and Department of State, to promote a more open legislative process in Cambodia to compliment local advocacy efforts with different development partners and UN agencies.

As former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, stated in 2012 “A dynamic and autonomous civil society able to operate freely, is one of the fundamental checks and balances necessary for building a healthy society, and one of the key bridges between governments and their people.” However, Cambodia is not the only place where the government seems to be intent on going against this advice.

NGO laws in other countries

In Russia, NGOs who receive foreign funding or engage in “political” activity are forced to register as “foreign agents,” equating CSOs with “spies” or “traitors,” an atmosphere that has encouraged a wave of intrusive inspections and led to a number of NGOs being shut down. Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet Socialist Republic, is reportedly in the process of introducing similar legislation.

In an ongoing struggle with Greenpeace India, the Indian government froze the organization’s bank accounts in April 2014 amid accusations that its environmental campaigns were hurting India’s economy, and on 6 June 2015, a foreign staff member was prevented form entering the country even though he had a valid .

In addition to examples of restrictive NGO laws, there are others that help facilitate the work of civil society. In countries such as Belgium, France and the United Kingdom, registration is not mandatory but is usual for organizations that wish to become legal entities. The laws in these countries then give detailed definitions and guidelines for registration, dissolution and suspension. Details such as these are lacking in Cambodia’s LANGO.

During his visit to Cambodia on 2 June 2015, United States Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Scott Busby, spoke to Foreign Affairs Minister, Hor Namhong, to propose the reconsideration of the LANGO, even questioning whether such a law was necessary given the existence of laws that already address issues such as terrorism and criminal activity. This opinion is shared by Human Rights Watch, which has called for the law to be withdrawn.

Time for Action

Cambodian and international organizations are working together to try and steer Cambodia on a positive path, and ensure that civil society will not be silenced. We are advocating for a more transparent, open and inclusive process for this legislation and others, and are again calling for the release of the official draft. To follow the campaign and be part of the conversation, follow Stop and Consult on Facebook or Twitter and watch out for out for more information from CCHR and other CSOs in the coming days.

Dani Esquivel, CCHR International Intern