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Cambodia's human rights record under spotlight in third Universal Periodic Review

Two monks vote during the general election, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 29 July 2018
Two monks vote during the general election, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 29 July 2018

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Cambodia is among the 41 states whose human rights records are under scrutiny at the ongoing 32nd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Working Group. Cambodia's report was delivered on 30 January by the Cambodian Human Rights Committee headed by Mr. Keo Remy, who is also an attaché to the country's prime minister.

Cambodia's first UPR took place in December 2009; its second in February 2014. At the latter, 205 recommendations were proposed by 76 countries, of which the government officially accepted 162 and took note of 43.

After the second UPR, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia cooperated with UPR Info, a civil society group based in Geneva, and with the government's Cambodian Human Rights Committee, to co-organize Cambodia's Mid-Term Universal Periodic Review National Consultation and Assessment Workshop. It was held on 29 and 30 June 2017, in Phnom Penh. Also ahead of this third UPR, CCHR, UPR Info, and OHCHR Cambodia organized a series of workshops aimed at supporting Cambodian civil society to effectively participate in and engage with the UPR process.

The country's third UPR will focus on the measures or reforms undertaken by the government to implement the recommendations discussed five years ago, as well as on new human rights developments that have occurred since.

In drafting its 20-page report, the government said it conducted three consultations with relevant inter-ministerial working groups and two meetings with stakeholders and civil society organizations (CSOs). Meanwhile, the UN received 31 stakeholders' submissions which were summarized and included in the UPR agenda.

(Read this IFEX explainer on the UPR process).

The Cambodian context

The UPR takes place six months after the country held general elections which saw a landslide victory of the ruling party led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has held power for three decades.

The credibility of the election process was questioned after the Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition party and banned its members from holding public office for five years. Opposition leader Kem Sokha was detained on treason charges. He was released two months after the elections, but remains under house arrest.

Dozens of radio outlets were closed ahead of the polls, a critical newspaper was slapped with hefty tax fines forcing it to close operations, two journalists were charged with espionage, and an ambiguous inter-ministerial prakas (regulation) on website and social media control was promulgated. Meanwhile, the country's Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (Lango) was criticized for stifling the people's right to organize and intimidating groups accused of working against the government.

Activists faced direct persecution. Land rights advocate Tep Vanny was detained for exercising peaceful activism, while five human rights workers from the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) were detained for assisting a witness linked to a case involving the political opposition. Restrictions were imposed on assemblies, with rallies being for instance restricted to a small part of the capital. Impunity has persisted in the country, allowing the real perpetrators of extrajudicial killings like that of prominent political analyst Kem Ley in 2016 to go unpunished.

The government's narrative

Despite these issues, which reflect the diminishing freedoms and civil liberties in the country, the government's narrative categorically denies through the official report it submitted to the UN last November 2018 that it is enforcing laws that obstruct freedom of expression.

It clarified that the controversial defamation law (Article 305 of the Criminal Code), which is often used by authorities to silence criticism, "is not a barrier to freedom of expression, but it is to protect human dignity in line with human rights principles."

Anticipating the enumeration of cases highlighting attacks on free speech, the government argued that the courts were merely imposing sanctions on wrongdoers: "In the past, there were journalists, human rights defenders and a few civil society actors who were prosecuted with criminal offences because the court found out that they had used their professions as mediums to commit crimes."

The government also cited the measures it enacted which strengthened the country's adherence to human rights, such as ratifying eight out of nine core human rights treaties, setting up of a national anti-torture mechanism, providing lawyers to defend the poor without charging, sustaining its work with the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) which handles the genocide case against the Khmer Rouge, reducing the number of child labor cases, and developing a Strategic Plan for Gender Mainstreaming.

Alternative report

But in separate submissions to the UN, civil society groups highlighted the accountability of the government in eroding the rights of citizens.

They mentioned the government's use of repressive laws to jail opposition politicians, file harassment suits against the media, attack activists, censor the Internet, and weaken trade unions. Civil society also expressed their concern that the judicial system is regularly used as "a tool to target political opponents, land-activists, journalists and critical social media users."

In a joint submission, civil society groups CIVICUS, CCHR, ADHOC, Solidarity Center, and IFEX pressed for the decriminalization of defamation, the amendment of the Lango to ensure its compliance with the ICCPR, the overhaul of several articles in the Criminal Code such as insulting the King, incitement, unlawful coercion of judicial authorities, and discrediting judicial decisions.

The groups also recommended that all draft laws, including the proposed Law on Access to Information, should comply with international standards and that meaningful public consultations be done.

To foster a free and pluralistic media, the government was urged to cease judicial harassment of journalists and the abuse of tax regulations to harass media outlets and associations.

IFEX also joined a submission with CCHR, Transparency International, ADHOC, Destination Justice, and API on access to justice which promoted the independence and impartiality of the judicial system, improvement of legal aid, access to legal information and fair trial rights.

Facilitating the session on 30 January are rapporteurs from Senegal, Pakistan and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The report about Cambodia's UPR proceedings will be released on 1 February. The final outcome of the 32nd session, including the response of the government, will be adopted by the plenary of the Human Rights Council in June 2019.

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