Human rights

Putting Cambodia back on track

Cambodian Centre for Human Rights executive director Chak Sopheap breaks down how Cambodia has strayed from the promises of its constitution – and how the nation can get itself back on course

WHY WE WROTE THIS: Because democracy and the rule of law cannot thrive in a culture of impunity.

Chak Sopheap
September 24, 2019
Putting Cambodia back on track
A Cambodian protester holds a portrait of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen during a protest outside the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The residents from Kratie province gathered to protest, calling for Prime Minister Hun Sen to find a solution to solve their land dispute. Photo: Kith Serey/EPA-EFE

Despite having made impressive advancements in economic development and poverty reduction in recent years, Cambodia’s achievements are marred by a serious deterioration of the human rights situation and a divergence away from the promises of the Constitution. A train that once made progress squarely in the direction of a modern, liberal, multi-party democracy appears to have derailed. 

The past few years have witnessed systematic restrictions of fundamental freedoms of the ordinary Cambodian population, judicial harassment of journalists and human rights defenders, an increase in land rights violations, sustained attacks against the political opposition and a lack of respect for both international and domestic laws that protect human rights. We have even seen the enactment of laws that overtly disrespect human rights and fundamentally disregard the Constitution, which was itself amended in 2018 to include vague provisions such as the requirement that in their activities political parties and Khmer citizens “primarily uphold the national interest”. 

It is time to acknowledge the fact that Cambodia is in the grips of a human rights crisis that has reached a tipping point. Restoring balance is no easy task – Cambodia, more than most countries, is acutely aware of the fact that the pursuit of justice rarely is – but this does not mean that it is impossible. 

As Cambodian citizens, the Constitution specifically protects our rights to participate in assemblies and to associate, including to affiliate with a political party

Almost two years since the widely criticised November 2017 Supreme Court decision that dissolved the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and banned 118 senior CNRP officials from political activities for five years, the political domain remains a fraction of the pluralistic, democracy that it once endeavored to be. A surge in harassment of former CNRP members further illustrates an increased effort to suppress any form of political dissent. Cambodia has regressed into a de facto one-party state in which local opposition supporters are left disenfranchised and unrepresented. The relentless rhetoric between Prime Minister Hun Sen and exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy has unnecessarily imposed further divisions across the country, making a mockery of Cambodian politics.

When it comes to the protection of fundamental rights, Cambodia persistently fails to comply with its international human rights obligations to create and maintain a safe and enabling environment for civil society. Instead, civil society is marred by abuses of fundamental freedoms resulting in a severely curtailed civic space. As Cambodian citizens, the Constitution specifically protects our rights to participate in assemblies and to associate, including to affiliate with a political party. Therefore, every time an assembly or association is prevented or interfered with, where there is disproportionate force used towards protestors or threats made to members of an association, or more worryingly where people are subsequently punished for exercising these rights, this is an infringement of international human rights legislation and of our own Constitution. 

The former president of the CNRP Kem Sokha shows his inked finger after voting during local council elections in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo: Kith Serey / EPA-EFE

One of the fundamental freedoms most frequently affronted in Cambodia is the right to freedom of expression. Since a clampdown which intensified in 2017, independent voices have been systematically targeted and silenced. The intimidation, harassment and prosecution of individuals exercising their right to freedom of expression has disseminated a clear warning to citizens across the country and the ripples of self-censorship and fear echo throughout the kingdom. Not only has this had a chilling effect on press freedom but also on the lives of everyday citizens, as a large number of free speech violations stem from posts or shares on social media and online platforms. 

The context in which these violations are taking place is also of relevance to the deteriorating situation and is itself representative of a challenge that needs to be overcome. Cambodia has undergone vast economic development yet it has come at an expense. The interests of businesses, Cambodian and Chinese alike, and development projects have taken precedent over those of local communities resulting in land rights violations littering rural Cambodia. The environment suffers a sustained assault as forests are razed, Cambodia’s coasts are dredged and mines are emptied. 

Social inequality has permeated throughout our country cultivating a widening wealth gap and gentrified cities. This is not sustainable. When will public good be prioritised? When will we begin to respect our obligation to preserve and protect the environment, as required by our Constitution? Once all the lakes have been filled, when the poorest Cambodian’s cannot afford to live in their own cities, and Cambodia has been raped of all her natural resources? 

A surge in harassment of former CNRP members further illustrates an increased effort to suppress any form of political dissent.

Another key challenge is Cambodia’s weak institutions which are preventing advancement and achievement of our human rights obligations and seriously undermining the rule of law. Every seat of the National Assembly is occupied by a member of the ruling party, resulting in an institution that affords no opportunity for legitimate cross-party debate and a departure from pluralistic democracy. Our judiciary too requires improvement on multiple fronts if it is not to act as a barrier to justice. Most importantly, the independence of the judiciary should be established in legislation and in practice to ensure a separation of powers as provided for by the Constitution. 

Beyond the human impact felt by Cambodian citizens in the everyday exercise of their fundamental rights and freedoms, the present situation has potentially far reaching political and economic implications that cannot be forgotten. The European Commission’s decision to launch the formal monitoring procedure that could lead to the temporary suspension of Cambodia’s preferential access to the European Union (EU) market under the Everything but Arms (EBA) trade scheme, is just one example. Many local labour organisations have warned of the effects that such a suspension could have on the livelihoods of thousands of ordinary labour workers and their families and have urged the government to take action to remedy the situation. It is not just the EU considering sanctions on the basis of Cambodia’s human rights record – the United States (US) too has taken action in the form of the Cambodia Democracy Act of 2019. The Bill, if passed, would allow the President of the US to impose sanctions on Cambodian officials who are found to have “directly and substantially undermined democracy in Cambodia.” 

The Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) has tried to underplay the potential impact of sanctions by highlighting the dominant influence China plays in Cambodia’s economic development as its largest creditor and the biggest source of foreign direct investment. However, looking to the experiences of other small countries, many have warned that the Chinese loan model leaves countries debt ridden and in danger of losing their sovereignty and national identity. Already in Cambodia local communities claim they are being left out of economic gain, losing land to big development projects and jobs to Chinese workers. 

Cambodian labourers work at a construction site in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo: Kith Serey/EPA-EFE

Facing these challenges and putting Cambodia back on track is no easy task and there are many hurdles to overcome, but all is not lost. There are immediate concrete actions we can take to ensure that the enjoyment of rights enshrined in our Constitution become a reality for all. For example, to restore the civic and political space the RGC can release opposition leader Kem Sokha from house arrest, lift the ban on opposition politicians and release and drop charges against all human rights defenders and journalists detained for exercising their right to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

Alongside improving the space in which individual activists are free to act, the RGC should further commit to enacting legislative and policy amendments including repealing the controversial provisions that have recently been injected into the constitution itself to ensure respect for individual freedoms. Transparency, inclusivity and public consultation in this regard is key. Civil society must be given the opportunity to play a meaningful role in the preparation of law and policy. 

It is our duty to advocate for our rights, to remind the state of their obligations, and to engage wholeheartedly in a dialogue that has the potential to change the current landscape and put Cambodia back on track

Democracy and the rule of law cannot thrive in a culture of impunity – and any true commitment to these principles by the RGC must include respect for these principles moving forward but also a commitment to rectifying violations of them in the past. The RGC must ensure that impartial, thorough and effective investigations into all cases of attacks on and harassment and intimidation against human rights defenders are undertaken. An independent, non-partisan judiciary composed of judges who do not hold positions within political parties, is paramount to achieving this. Cambodia cannot move forward until its judiciary becomes stronger and gains independence from outside influence, only then can citizens rely on the courts to deliver justice.

When it comes to sustainable development, it is paramount that our economy is developed in a sustainable manner; development must be balanced against equality, respect, environmental integrity and sovereignty. In order to foster sustainable development Cambodia must balance its approach to diplomacy, building strong relationships across countries without favoring specific blocs and simultaneously preserving and defending the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our country.

Most importantly, it is time to rekindle a national dialogue on these issues that engages public, private and individual actors alike to work together towards respect for a strong democratic state, the rule of law and a commitment to sustainable economic development. A strong and healthy civil society is imperative to the success of this dialogue. While the role of the protection of human rights is a job that falls primarily at the feet of the state, each individual has her or his role to play. It is our duty to advocate for our rights, to remind the state of their obligations, and to engage wholeheartedly in a dialogue that has the potential to change the current landscape and put Cambodia back on track. 

Chak Sopheap

is the executive director at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights

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