51 groups in Cambodia have signed a statement deploring the harassment and intimidation carried out by authorities against the striking workers of NagaWorld who are mostly women.
This statement was originally published on cchrcambodia.org on 24 February 2022.
We, the undersigned civil society groups, communities and trade unions, are dismayed by recent incidents of state-sponsored violence, including sexual harassment, against Cambodian women engaged in peaceful strikes and assemblies. Members of the Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld (LRSU) – most of whom are women – have been subjected to violence, imprisonment, and arbitrary application of COVID-19 measures in response to their peaceful strike since December 2021.
Authorities have repeatedly pushed, dragged and carried peaceful strikers onto buses to take them to a COVID-19 quarantine centre in Prek Phnov district, Phnom Penh this week. On 22 February 2022, a male officer grabbed and squeezed the breast of one woman as she was being forced onto a bus. Similarly, on 29 December 2021, state authorities used vulgar sexual language toward a striker and threatened to sexually assault her.
Women strikers have been repeatedly and disproportionately targeted by government efforts to disperse the peaceful strike. During January, strikers were arbitrarily denied access to bathrooms nearby the strike site, which were reopened daily as strikers returned home. Authorities have prevented strikers from returning home until after dark on multiple occasions, and at times followed them when they have been permitted to leave.
This month, strikers have repeatedly complied with orders to undertake multiple COVID-19 tests and fulfiled quarantine orders. Despite meeting such demands, on 21 February 2022, 64 strikers – 56 women and eight men – were forcibly taken to a quarantine facility as they attempted to resume their strike and were only permitted to return home late in the evening after complying with further COVID-19 testing. The next day, 39 strikers – 31 women and eight men – were forcibly taken to the same quarantine centre. Strikers reported that the facility does not have adequate access to water for bathing, or drinking, or adequate sleeping areas. The following afternoon, 51 additional strikers – 41 women and 10 men – were sent to the same quarantine centre. They have each been fined up to 2 million riel (US$500) for allegedly violating COVID-19 measures as they attempted to resume their strike. Strikers detained since Tuesday have not been released from the quarantine centre.
Meanwhile, 11 LRSU members and leaders, including seven women, have been arrested since December 2021, in retaliation for their peaceful and legitimate exercise of freedom of assembly and freedom of association. They are currently in pre-trial detention. The seven women have been charged with incitement to commit a felony under Cambodia’s Criminal Code and face up to two years in overcrowded prisons if convicted.
State-sanctioned violence against women, arbitrary enforcement of COVID-19 mitigation measures, and the use of the judiciary to stifle public participation are unjustified and unlawful under both international and domestic law. In particular, they violate the constitutional right to peaceful assembly and rights under the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) as interpreted in the CEDAW General Recommendations Nos. 30 (regarding women in conflict, “including protracted and low-intensity civil strife, political strife”) and 35 (regarding gender-based violence).
Women’s rights violations continue to be rampant in Cambodia, with many women reporting feeling less free than men to exercise their fundamental rights, including their rights to speech and assembly. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a particularly heavy toll on women in Cambodia: many have suffered its economic impacts since the most affected industries, including entertainment, garment, and hospitality, employ a larger share of women than other sectors. In these challenging times, women need increased guarantees to exercise their rights and support, and civil society cannot remain silent in the face of the violence committed against them, all the more when such abuses are committed by the very authorities whose mission is to protect them.
We remind the RGC of its commitments to CEDAW and the Committee’s recommendation in paragraph 9 from November 2019 to fully guarantee the rights of women human rights defenders, trade union leaders, land and environmental activists and members of the political opposition party, particularly their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association, without harassment, surveillance or other undue restrictions. We strongly urge the government to adopt standards on gender-responsive policing and to mandate gender trainings for police, military, and other security acting on behalf of the state so that they conduct themselves in a professional, ethical, and gender responsive and sensitive manner whenever they interact with members of the public. We call for all women to be free to resume their peaceful strikes and exercise their fundamental rights without discrimination, and for all imprisoned unionists to be immediately and unconditionally released with all charges dropped.