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:

[2] Human Rights Watch, Cambodia: Revise Union Law to Protect Worker Rights (17 Dec 2015) Available at:

[3] Human Rights Watch, Cambodia: Revise Union Law to Protect Worker Rights (17 Dec 2015) Available at: <>

[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:

[6] Voice of America, ‘Labor Leaders Fear Union Law Will Pass Without Meaningful Changes’ (06 January 2016) Available at:

Setting Examples: Women in Leadership


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 < >

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

[2] Ibid

[3] Niem Chheng, ‘Gov’t denies land rights issues’, The Phnom Penh Post, 08 February 2016

[4] RFI Khmer video interview with Seng Loth, MLMUPC spokesperson, 11 February 2016, (in Khmer)

[5] Chea Vannak, ‘Indigenous Community’s Collective Land Still in Danger: Report’, The Khmer Times, 12 February 2016

[6] CCHR Report, ‘Access to Collective Land Titles for Indigenous communities in Cambodia’, February 2016,

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

Two Years Since Ruthless Crackdown of Garment Worker Demonstrations – What Has Changed?

Last Sunday marked the second anniversary of the deadly crackdown of a garment worker protest by military police in Phnom Penh, although it appears that little has changed in terms of the treatment of factory workers in Cambodia or the authorities’ response to demonstrations which remains as ruthless as ever.

The crackdown of the demonstration on 03 January 2014 occurred in Phnom Penh’s Canadia Industrial Park, killing five people and leaving over 30 others injured. These protests were part of a wider ongoing national strike in response to the failure of the Ministry of Labor’s Labor Advisory Committee to adequately raise the minimum wage beyond $95, as unions had requested. The authorities’ response to the discontent was ruthless, using a clearly disproportionate degree of violence in order to disperse the protestors. Initially the police broke up the demonstration beating people with batons before a larger cohort of military police armed with automatic weapons arrived, firing live ammunition at the demonstrators. This use of live ammunition on garment workers was particularly shocking and drew the outright condemnation from several domestic and international groups, and even international buyers.

Unfortunately the events of two years ago cannot be viewed as isolated events since continued demonstrations and violent official reactions suggest that little has changed. On the day of the second anniversary, a crowd of around 300 union members and factory workers gathered to commemorate the incident but this demonstration was also broken up by riot police. Despite the failure to prosecute those responsible for the killing of the five garment workers two years ago, the police arrested and sentenced activists involved in the demonstrations, and continue to arrest those that dare to demand better working conditions by exercising their fundamental right to freedom of assembly. The lack of an effective investigation into the use of deadly force two years ago is demonstrative of the pervading culture of impunity that stifles any legitimate dissent and undermines the rule of law in Cambodia.

The continued use of force to respond to any form of protest constitutes a major violation of the human rights of an already economically and politically marginalized and exploited sector of society. As well as allowing impunity for the state’s security personnel in their disproportionate use of deadly force, the failure to respect the human rights to freedom of assembly and peaceful protest is deeply troubling and constitutes breaches of ­­­Article 37 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia and Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is recognized in Cambodian law. Together with this serious infringement of core human rights, there has been very little progress in the improvement of the working conditions or wages in the garment sector. Due to the major significance of the garment industry for the Cambodian economy and fears that increased wages would make Cambodia less attractive to the multinational garment manufacturers, the government and local factory owners have staunchly refused to raise the minimum wage to the levels demanded by the unions. The unions have had some success in negotiating an increase in the monthly minimum wage with the 2016 wage being set at $140, although this still falls well short of the union demands of $160. The minimum wage therefore remains at an unsatisfactory level.

Two years after the deadly protests that drew the world’s attention to the plight of Cambodia’s garment workers, the situation remains much the same. The garment sector continues to be plagued by a myriad of human rights violations, and workers are denied the freedom to protest against their terrible working conditions or low wages due to the threat of lethal police force for which the perpetrators enjoy impunity. While the State certainly has a duty to protect human rights, the garment factories and international buyers also have a responsibility to ensure the rights of Cambodia’s garment workers are respected, as per the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Although cheap labor may be attractive for the likes of GAP and H&M, perhaps fair working conditions, respect for fundamental human rights and freedom from deadly violence would be a more attractive situation for all of those involved in the long term.

Georges Rouillon, CCHR International Intern

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

[2] The Law on the Organization and Function of the National Election Committee and the Law on Election of Members of the National Assembly

Impunity: Calling for Justice

Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once remarked: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” These words resonate sharply when one considers impunity in Cambodia.

For more than a decade, many citizens in Cambodia have become victims of extrajudicial killings, including journalists and human rights defenders. In many cases, full investigations have never taken place and therefore the perpetrators not brought to justice; some of the cases have even been forgotten about.

Perhaps one of the most notable examples of impunity in Cambodia is the Mao Sok Chan case. During a clash with security forces in a demonstration at Monivong Bridge against the result of the national election in 2013, Mao Sok Chan, a motorbike courier, was fatally shot in the head during the chaos. The perpetrator remains at large, and the motive unanswered.

Photo of Mao Sok Chan's family during the photo exhibition of impunity on 2 November 2015 organized by Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, Photo: On Sovannak

Photo of Mao Sok Chan’s family during the photo exhibition of impunity on 2 November 2015 organized by Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, Photo: On Sovannak

While right groups and the victim’s family continue to push for the case to be investigated and not forgotten, the Cambodian government has taken no action to bring the perpetrator to justice.  In September this year, the spokesperson of the Ministry of interior announced that “Mao Sok Chan’s case should now be buried,” before further opining that “the disruptive protests challenging election results had caused the conditions leading to his death.”

Despite years passing after the incident, the wound still lingers, and the grief has not diminished whilst justice remains elusive.

In response to the Mao Sok Chan case, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights recently launched a campaign entitled “Never Forget”, with the purpose of reminding both the government and public not to forget the many victims of impunity or their families, who are calling for justice.

The Mao Sok Chan case vividly reminds us that overcoming impunity is perhaps the single most important undertaking facing Cambodia today. If there is to be any chance of overcoming impunity, a strong commitment from the government is crucial.

As a member of United Nations and a signatory to many international human rights instruments, Cambodia has an obligation to respect fundamental human rights.  If Cambodia wants to become a responsible global citizen then the government must ensure the immediate review and investigation of all outstanding cases of extrajudicial killings and other serious human rights violations, and bring those responsible to justice.

By having those who committed crimes identified and punished, Cambodia can better understand its own past, and finally ensure a future where human rights flourish and impunity ceases to exist.

On Sovnnak, former 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

Embed from Getty Images

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