UN Expert Proposes Human Rights Agenda for Cambodia to Pave the Way for Democratic Reforms

GENEVA – UN Special Rapporteur Vitit Muntarbhorn has issued a 10-point human rights agenda to improve the human rights situation in Cambodia, open up civil and political space and pave the way for democratic reform, during his first official visit since his appointment in March 2021.

Vitit Muntarbhornon, UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Cambodia met with Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on Aug. 16.

In his statement, Vitit Muntarbhorn said the country had achieved much internationally-recognized progress and had also ratified most core human rights treaties.

“Yet Cambodia is faced with a pervasive paradox. Since 2017, when the main opposition party was disbanded unjustly by judicial order, the country has effectively been under single-party rule, with all seats of the National Assembly in the hands of that monopoly. This has led to systemic control by the powers-that-be, leading to political and other distortions undermining the call for a pluralistic democracy,” Muntarbhorn said.

During his 11-day trip from August 15- 26, Special Rapporteur Muntarbhorn met with Prime Minister Hun Sen, a variety of members of civil society, UN agencies and concerned communities and individuals. He saw a peaceful demonstration by NAGA World workers, met local government officials in Sihanoukville to learn of the situation of cybercrimes that are linked with human trafficking and exploitations, and met with communities displaced or evicted by land development and flooding caused by the conversion of lakes into commercial land. During his visit, Muntarbhorn also met with opposition party members and independent commentators who have faced harassment or legal charges.

Muntarbhorn urged the Cambodian government to adopt the 10-point “Cambodian Human Rights Action Agenda” expeditiously and effectively by suspending and reforming draconian laws, ensuring election-related personnel are separated from political parties and ending the prosecution of the political opposition and human rights defenders.

He recommended releasing all those currently in prison and dropping charges against those who are seen as adversaries by the authorities and improving the quality of law enforcers by proper recruitment, incentivization and clear separation from political authority.

On June 14, the Cambodian court convicted 51 members and activists of the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) with charges of “incitement” and conspiracy.” Many defendants were sentenced up to eight years in prison, at least four defenders were already detained, and 27 of the defendants are living in exile, many top party leaders including Deputy Vice President Mu Sochua, former CNRP President Sam Rainsy and a well-known Cambodian American civil rights defender Theary C. Seng.

Since the dissolution of the CNRP party in 2017, the crackdown on opposition party members and activists have intensified. Hundreds of CNRP members were summoned to court, at least 78 faced politically motivated charges, most were released on bail on December 2019, but the fake charges were never dropped and those charges continued to hang over their necks.

President of CNRP Kem Sokha was arrested in September 2017 and charged with treason. This was apparently of lesser priority for the Cambodian court, as his hearing was delayed for two years until this January, while Phnom Penh judges was busy packing hundreds of other CNRP members into their courtroom.

“The show trial of members of an opposition party that has long since been dissolved by the courts exposes the Hun Sen government’s fear of any vestige of democracy in Cambodia,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Foreign governments, the United Nations, and donors should press the government to squash these convictions and end its broad attack on Cambodia’s remaining civic and democratic space.”

With single-party rule since 2017, after ousting the only viable opposition party CNRP, which received nearly 50% of national assembly seats voted by the people, the 2022 commune elections allowed the ruling party to sweep 80% of the local council seats, with only a few gained by small opposition parties. The political and democratic space in Cambodia is going opposite to the multiparty rule that the Paris Peace Accords promised to the Cambodian people.

“This is a country with a bright future, but it faces a number of severe human rights challenges in the lead up to next year’s general election,” said Special Rapporteur Muntarbhorn. With the incoming national elections in 2023, he recommended changes as follows:

The National Election Committee need to be more pluralistic and inclusive in the recruitment process, and election personnel at all levels need to distance themselves from political parties to ensure their impartiality. Local authorities should not be present near polling stations and the public should be allowed to monitor the vote counting process nearby, and the voting results should be posted publicly for cross-checking. He also called for a law to expose campaign finance, and stop the intimidation and harassment of opposition parties and independent commentators.

Special Rapporteur Muntarbhorn said, “Regrettably, various negative incidents were evident in the process leading up to the commune elections and these included the delisting of several candidates under questionable circumstances. There is also the anomaly of various prosecutions (now taking place) of those who question the election results.”

He called for independent observers to monitor the next national election in 2023, while observers close to political parties should only have limited access. “This must be complemented by more breathing space – “political aeration” – to enjoy freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and other rights in keeping with international standards in the pre-vote, vote, and post-vote phases,” he said.

Muntarbhorn said he was also pleased to meet a variety of different stakeholders during the visit. These included women human rights defenders, environmental defenders, members of non-governmental organizations, trade unions, media groups, farmer groups and youth / child groups.

“Many complained of intimidation and harassment by the authorities. Several had been prosecuted and imprisoned for their work, and criminal charges were still hanging over them like the sword of Damocles,” he said.

Human Rights Watch documented in its report more than 50 political prisoners in pretrial detention or in prison, including political opposition members, human rights defenders, land and environmental activists, and journalists.

There are a variety of laws that constrain the media and non-governmental organization from doing their work. There are criminal laws, Telecom-related laws and the Single Internet Gateway decree which needs to be repealed according to Special Rapporteur Muntarbhorn report.

The Single Internet Gateway law allows the government to conduct surveillance on individuals using social media, which violates the freedom of expression, privacy and sense of security among media personnel and others.

Muntarbhorn said trade unionists reported that they’ve been threaten and intimidated for advocating for labor rights and the guarantee of minimum wage. Members of local and indigenous communities complained they also received threats and intimidation for working to protect the forests. They asked that the law should recognize their role in working to protect such areas, and respect their rites and rituals.

He added that farmer groups voiced the land grabbing issue, some were victims of violence perpetrated by the authorities as they tried to advocate for their rights. The court was used as a tool against them to limit their rights to express, assemble and participate peacefully.

Additionally, Cambodia has recently become a destination country for human trafficking versus being the source of human trafficking in the past. Muntarbhorn said human trafficking victims who were duped into working for online scam companies in Cambodia were experiencing a “living hell” often resulting in torture and even death. He called for stronger and active counter-measures, and the welcome of international cooperation and support.

The Cambodian government issued a press release after Special Rapporteur Muntarbhorn issued this report. It denied any wrong doing and said that “his statement remains largely biased, prejudiced, and unfound on a number of issues.”

The expert’s second report on human rights in Cambodia will be released in September 2022. This article is available in Khmer.