A Morning at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia

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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

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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

Proud Kingdom Celebrates Diversity

(cc) CCHR 18 May 2015

(cc) CCHR 18 May 2015

This year’s Gay Pride festival hit the Kingdom of Cambodia on 11 May and has proved to be the biggest and best yet. The event has been growing in scope and popularity since it became an annual event in Cambodia in 2009. This year, with events ranging from film screenings, dance parties and a tuk tuk and cyclo race, there really was something for everyone, regardless of whether they were straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (“LGBT”).

Cambodia’s Gay Pride Week was timed to coincide with the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (“IDAHOT”), on 17 May. The day commemorates the date in 1990 when the World Health Organization officially declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder.

IDAHOT is celebrated in over 180 countries, including several where homosexuality is illegal. This year to mark the occasion, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Office released a video on supporting LGBT rights, which it projected on a building in New York’s famous Times Square two days ahead of the global celebrations.

In Cambodia the theme of Gay Pride 2015 was ‘LGBT Youth’ and many of those involved were students and young activists. Cambodia is in many ways a country of the younger generation; over half of the population is under 25 years old. Thus the theme for IDAHOT 2015 was highly appropriate in Cambodia, focusing on the potential for young people to affect real change.

Throughout history LGBT voices have been silenced either by repression or stigma. In Cambodia, traditional social pressure from friends and family to conform can still be very strong. IDAHOT and the broader Gay Pride festival give us all a chance to discuss issues frankly and openly, to hopefully bring about real change in the lives of LGBT people.

As overseas, the business community in Cambodia also had a strong presence in celebrations this year, driving activities under the inspiring ‘I Am What I Am’ slogan. Bars and resorts hosted events and parties celebrating the diversity of the LGBT community.

Awareness of the complex social and political issues facing the LGBT community is constantly expanding, and to reflect that there was a change to the title this year. The term ‘biphobia’, meaning discrimination against a person for being bisexual, was added to the title to raise awareness about the particular struggles facing bisexual people.

Bisexuality is often misunderstood as a form of confusion or indecision about sexual orientation, which has lead many people to keep their bisexual identity to themselves. Even within the LGBT community, bisexuals are often sidelined or excluded, making this year’s IDAHOT a particularly important occasion to recognize the variety of sexual orientations and gender identities that exist.

In addition to fun and festivity, there was also a serious public awareness and health focus to Gay Pride this year. The Cambodian Center for Human Rights’ (“CCHR”) Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (“SOGI”) Project joined other LGBT organizations in organizing a full program of events, including free and confidential finger-prick HIV testing, a street parade, and a number of workshops held on topics ranging from accessing legal support to addressing bullying against LGBT students in schools.

Nuon Sidara, CCHR’s SOGI Project Coordinator stated that “It is great that this year all sectors in Cambodia joined to celebrate Gay Pride and IDAHOT. Many people took part in events, had fun, and raised key issues for consideration by policy makers as they develop plans to protect LGBT rights. Strong support from the European Union, Swedish and British Embassies, the UN and Civil Society has been most welcome, and sets a positive tone for the future.”

As previously blogged, 2015 looks to be a big year for same-sex marriage legalization around the world. As this year’s Gay Pride celebrations draw to a close around Cambodia, all that is left is to look forward to next year’s celebration in the hope that the LGBT community will have even more milestones to celebrate by then.

New Year brings welcome release of activists, but judicial reform still essential

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Khmer New Year is traditionally a time to reflect on the year that was, and look forward to what the future will bring. This year’s festivities began on a positive note, with the release of imprisoned land rights activists and opposition party members. However, while certainly cause for celebration, the significance of the move should not be over-stated: the releases are reportedly the result of political bargaining between the CNRP and ruling Cambodian People’s Party, following months of negotiations related to the reform of the National Election Committee. Without meaningful reform to strengthen judicial independence, politically motivated cases against critical voices and unfair trials are likely to continue.

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Support for same-sex marriage continues to rise

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2015 is shaping up to be a potential watershed year for same-sex marriage reform around the world. In March the Slovenian Parliament passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage by a comfortable 51 votes to 28, making it the seventeenth country in the world to legalize the practice nation-wide; a first in a former communist country.[1]

Perhaps even more surprising is the current move to legalize same-sex marriage in the Republic of Ireland. In May this traditionally conservative, majority Catholic country will hold a referendum on adding a clause to their constitution stating that: “marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex,” thus making the restriction of marriage to heterosexual couples unconstitutional.

This is truly remarkable considering that homosexuality was a criminal offence in Ireland less than a quarter of a century ago, and civil partnerships have only been available to same-sex couples since 1 January 2011. Current polls estimate support for the yes campaign is at 74%. If the referendum is successful Ireland will become the first country in the world to adopt same-sex marriage by public vote.

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Cambodian women are speaking up for their rights; it’s time we listen

The women of Boeung Kak Lake protest the destruction of their homes in 2012 (pictured centre: famous land activist Tep Vanny)

The women of Boeung Kak Lake protest the destruction of their homes in 2012 (pictured centre: famous land activist Tep Vanny)

Reflecting on International Women’s Day, CCHR looks at the Cambodian women who are challenging gender norms by fighting for their rights

In every facet of society, women across the world continue to possess fewer advantages while enduring greater threats to their safety and well-being. The abuse of women’s rights is considered by some as the concern of women, and women alone. This is not a ‘women’s issue’, it is a human rights issue.[1] In Cambodia, the simple act of a woman speaking out can be seen as defiant and abhorrent. Nevertheless, brave female activists are raising their voices amidst ongoing attempts from the authorities to silence them. As people held flash-mobs to raise awareness of women’s rights ahead of International Women’s Day, events planned by civil society groups to encourage and empower women in prison had to be cancelled due to new restrictions.

“Women continue to face discrimination based on negative social expectations and stereotypes”

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Land rights through the eyes of an advocate  

A look at Cambodia’s number one human rights issue via the life of one of its prominent defenders

Ly Siev Minh has lived here for as long as she can remember. It may not be perfect, but it’s home.

Her father loves it here, he would fight for her family’s right to be here, no matter what.

Minh lives in Phnom Penh, on a piece of land a company has decided it wants to build on, land it views as more valuable than her family. This means her father has had to fight for her family’s right to be here. He has fought hard, and long, and she is proud to have fought by his side. Guards hired by the company have put snakes in her house, her drinking water has been poisoned, she has been pushed to the ground by the company’s guards, cut by them, and watched her father be beaten by them.

Finally, her father was arrested, and when she searched for him, they arrested her too.

She is still in prison.

……

Cambodia is a country of stark contrasts; indescribable beauty sits alongside rampant and blatant human rights abuses at the hands of not only companies, but also the very government responsible for the protection of its people. Prominent among those abuses is the denial of Cambodians’ rights to land and homes, which the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia believes remains ‘the number one’ human rights issue facing the country. Continue reading

Cambodians stand together in solidarity for Human Rights Day 2014

Human Rights Day 2014 celebrations outside the National AssemblyToday, 10 December, marks International Human Rights Day (“IHRD”). Proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1950, IHRD aims to bring the world’s attention to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“UDHR”) as “the common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.”[1] However, despite the dramatic improvement in Cambodia’s human rights situation since the Khmer Rouge atrocities of the 1970s, human rights violations remain a serious problem in Cambodian society, with those from poor and marginalized communities particularly affected. IHRD is an important moment for the human rights community in Cambodia to raise their concerns, and over the last few days human rights defenders (“HRDs”), monks, activists and civil society groups marched from across the country to Phnom Penh. They gathered outside the National Assembly this morning to call for, among other things, improved labour rights, land rights, and the release of imprisoned fellow activists.

Yesterday, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (“CCHR”) launched an exhibition entitled, “Where is My Justice?”, which highlights Cambodia’s deeply rooted culture of impunity and shares the experiences of victims of human rights violations. Impunity affects a wide range of people in Cambodia, from demonstrators subjected to excessive use of force by the police and judicial harassment, to people forcibly evicted from their homes in illegal land grabs or members of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community who face discrimination and attacks; all have failed to receive justice for crimes committed against them. Continue reading

Global movement for an end to impunity has emerged

blogCambodians are not alone in their fight against impunity and injustice; a global movement for an end to impunity has emerged.

Today, 23 November 2014, marks the fifth anniversary of the world’s largest single attack on journalists – the Maguindanao or Ampatuan massacre – in which 32 journalists were killed in the Philippines. To date, no one has been held accountable for the killings, and this is not the only case. It has therefore become an international day of action to end impunity. Impunity, which means “without punishment” or “without consequence”, is a global issue. In the past 10 years, over 700 journalists have been killed globally, and according to UNESCO approximately 90% of these murders have been met with impunity. However, the world has not been silent, and powerful campaigns are placing pressure on governments around the world to take action to end impunity.

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