||Human Rights Situation in Cambodia
Human Rights in Cambodia: The Situation in 2012
Article 1 of the Constitution of
the Kingdom of Cambodia (the “Constitution”) commits Cambodia to the principles
of pluralism and liberal democracy while Article 31 provides that Cambodia will
“recognize and respect human rights as stipulated in the United Nations
Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Covenants and
Conventions related to human rights, women’s and children’s rights”. The
following is a brief overview of the current situation of human rights and the
state of democracy in Cambodia.
|Freedom of Expression|
Freedom of expression is one of the cornerstones of democracy and is absolutely necessary for good governance and political participation. Nevertheless, the situation of freedom of expression in Cambodia is dire. Restrictive legislation, media censorship and judicial harassment of those who speak out, lead to a culture of silence.
“Traditional media”, namely print media, radio and television, is the most established form of media, yet in Cambodia this is also the form of media that is subject to the most stringent levels of control and censorship. The Royal Government of Cambodia (the “RGC”) heavily influences most media channels. Freedom House assessed press freedom in Cambodia as “not free” in its 2011 survey, while Reporters Without Borders ranks Cambodia 117 out of 179 countries on its most recent Press Freedom Index.
All television stations, most radio stations, and the foremost Cambodian newspapers are either owned or controlled by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (the “CPP”) or individuals aligned with the ruling party, thereby ensuring the RGC’s control over the dissemination of information. Thirty newspapers are published on a regular basis in Cambodia, and it has been mostly newspaper journalists who have been the subject of government actions to impose censorship. However, low literacy rates, and the fact that 85% of Cambodians live in rural areas and have no opportunity to buy newspapers, which are predominantly circulated in the urban centers, limit the reach and penetration of this form of print media.
Radio is therefore very important in Cambodia as it has a broader reach. There are 74 radio stations officially registered in Cambodia; most are CPP-influenced. There are three independent radio stations in the country, and one of them, Beehive has faced repeated restrictions, and has been shut down on various occasions. Mam Sonando, the owner, has been arrested three times, most recently on charges of secession and incitement to take up arms, related to a land dispute in Kratie. He was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison on 1 October 2012.
Cambodia has one of the lowest internet connectivity rates in South-East Asia. Nevertheless internet use has been increasing in recent years and there has been a surge in the use of social media sites and platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Youtube. Independent news stations are disseminating information online and bloggers are spreading opinions and ideas, many of which are critical of the RGC. The relative absence of restrictions of online content in Cambodia has been such that well-known Cambodian blogger and CCHR Program Director, Chak Sopheap, has described the internet as Cambodia’s “new digital democracy”.
Likely due to low penetration, the internet remains the least restricted form of media in Cambodia, however there have been efforts by the RGC to curb access to sites where “sensitive” information is published. In early February 2011, Cambodia experienced a wave of outages, affecting KI-Media, Khmerization, and the blog of Cambodian political cartoonist Sacrava, as well as five other websites. An unnamed employee of one ISP affected told the newspaper that the ministry had ordered the company to block KI-Media because it “impacts the government”.
Despite moves internationally to protect and promote internet freedoms, especially freedom of expression online, the RGC recently announced that it is drafting its first ever cyber law to regulate and to limit the use of the internet. One of the reasons for the adoption of such a cyber law is to prevent “ill-willed people… from spreading false information”. The law is in the early stages of drafting and has not yet been made available to the public, but fears abound that such a law could be extremely damaging to freedom of expression online in Cambodia.
|Freedom of Association
The controversial draft Law on Associations and NGOs (the “LANGO”) caused an outcry among Cambodian NGOs and other civil society organizations (“CSOs”), international NGOs and donors during 2011, when four drafts were produced, none of which took the majority of civil society recommendations into consideration. The LANGO threatened to severely restrict the freedom of expression of CSOs. The main criticisms of the fourth and most recent draft of the LANGO were the complex and onerous registration criteria and the control that the LANGO would grant the RGC over organizations through the ability to dissolve them for certain violations. The LANGO has currently been shelved, however the RGC has shown that a law is not necessary to silence NGOs and to wield control over their employees.
One example is the case of Chan Soveth, senior investigator at the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (“ADHOC”), who was summonsed for questioning by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on 24 August 2012, relating to the humanitarian aid that he administered to a land rights activist who came to the ADHOC office in Phnom Penh. ADHOC succeeded in pushing back the questioning for several months but Chan Soveth received a second summons on 11 December 2012, calling him for questioning on 24 December. This kind of judicial harassment serves to intimidate NGO workers in an attempt to obstruct their work. Ou Virak, President of CCHR was summonsed to the Ratanakkiri Provincial Court and appeared for questioning on 8 December 2012 relating to potential charges of incitement to commit a crime. The questioning was linked to a complaint, made by a local CPP commune chief, concerning a demonstration in 2009, held by villagers embroiled in a land dispute with private company D.M. Group. The demonstration turned violent. Also summonsed were Pen Bonnar and Chhay Thy, provincial staff of ADHOC and journalist Ratha Visal. Although charges against all four were dropped in December 2012, this is a regular tactic by the RGC – utilizing the corrupt judiciary in order to intimidate human rights workers.
Similarly, the Law on Trade Unions imposes onerous registration processes and reporting obligations on groups of employees. Although the law has yet to be passed, some unions have nevertheless faced difficulties registering and peaceful demonstrations calling for fairer working conditions have been harshly cracked down, as noted above.
|Freedom of Assembly|
Overall the Law on Peaceful Assembly, a reformed version of which was adopted in 2009, is not restrictive if applied correctly. However, there are some concerns about the application of the law and the specificity of some of its provisions, which can curtail the right to freedom of expression through assembly. In addition, the authorities, especially outside of Phnom Penh, are not necessarily aware of the law and therefore employ outdated provisions to restrict NGO meetings and peaceful community demonstrations.
In 2012, peaceful demonstrations regularly turned violent with disproportionate force used by the authorities. On 11 July 2012, Rong Panha, an employee of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, was beaten and arrested by the authorities, while he was peacefully protesting with the employees of the Tai Nan factory. In February 2012, during a protest at a factory in Svay Rieng province, the local governor, Chhouk Bandith, opened fire on demonstrators, shooting three female factory workers, and on 16 May 2012, a fourteen-year-old girl, Heng Chantha was shot dead in Kratie province when police opened fire on villagers during a crackdown on a land rights demonstrations. In December 2012, all charges against Chhouk Bandith were dropped by the Svay Rieng Provincial Court. On 31 December 2012, the Cambodia Daily reported that the Prosecutor General of the Court of Appeal was appealing the Svay Rieng Provincial Court’s decision to drop the charges. Meanwhile, no charges have been filed in the case of Heng Chantha’s murder, demonstrating the weaknesses of the Cambodian judicial system and the culture of impunity that persists in Cambodia.
Violations of land rights are perhaps the most widespread and prevalent forms of human rights abuses in Cambodia today. In recent years, the global increase in land prices and the financially lucrative nature of Economic Land Concessions (“ELCs”) has led to a rapid increase in the number of forced evictions. Some of the main problems identified by Surya Subedi, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, include the failure of the RGC to implement the existing legal framework when granting ELCs and a general lack of transparency and openness in land issues. The degree of violence that has been used by authorities while carrying out forced evictions has been alarming and in one case, resulted in the death of a 14 year old girl when authorities opened fire in an attempt to disperse a group of villagers during the forced eviction of around 1000 villagers in Kratie Province in May 2012. Other examples of the use of violence and excessive force on the part of the Cambodian authorities include the forced eviction at Borei Keila, in January 2012, where over 300 families were forcibly evicted as their homes were destroyed, resulting in a number of protesters being unlawfully and arbitrarily detained. These forced evictions continue to facilitate the wide scale transfer of land from poor and marginalized groups to a small political and economic elite with ELCs being granted to large businesses, many with connections to the CPP.
It is estimated that around 400,000 people have been affected by ELCs in Cambodia in the past decade, while more than 140 Cambodians were arrested or detained for protesting against ELCs in 2011 alone. Despite a current moratorium on ELCs, the RGC continues to grant them, claiming that it is simply honoring agreements made before the moratorium came into effect. Without publicly accessible details of ELCs agreed before the moratorium, there is no transparency in the process and citizens have little confidence in a system that is inaccessible and secretive.
In June 2012, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced an ambitious land titling project, whereby student volunteers will demarcate over four million acres of land and allocate hard title to villagers throughout Cambodia in an attempt to ease the growing tensions related to land disputes. The success or failure of this project remains to be seen but many commentators are critical of the plan that does not seem to have provided adequate training for the volunteers and will avoid any disputed areas of land. In short, it would seem that the project will do little to solve the increasingly worrying situation of land disputes in Cambodia. More worrying still, Prime Minister Hun Sen made comment implying that any individuals who seek assistance from organizations regarding land disputes will be punished by means of being deprived of hard title to land; addressing nearly 1,000 students, farmers and government officials, he warned them not to politicize or amplify their disputes over land and, according to a report in The Cambodia Daily newspaper dated 26 November 2012, stated: “I will not resolve and will stall [the land issues] whenever there is involvement from politicians, non‐governmental organizations or political parties.” Although he clarified his comments a few days later and toned down his rhetoric, it is still concerning as it indicates an unwillingness on the part of the government to work with civil society to address land reform.
|Fair Trial Rights and the Cambodian Judiciary|
Although there have been steady improvements in the adherence to some of the procedures that underpin fair trial rights, many areas of concern remain. One of the major issues that impacts upon fair trial rights in Cambodia is the lack of separation of powers and the continued influence that the executive is able to exert on the judiciary. Whilst the RGC has stated its commitment to legal and judicial reform, in its Legal and Judicial Reform Strategy, little practical progress has been made and the development of the legal and judicial sectors has fallen significantly behind the progress that has been achieved in other areas. There is a widening gap between the guarantees and standards set out in the Constitution in terms of the status of the judiciary and the way that the judiciary functions in practice. As this gap widens, the space for criticism and debate is shrinking, as the courts are used as political tools to silence opposition and dissent.
International fair trial standards that are recognized in both Cambodian and International law are being undermined by some of the practices that continue within the criminal justice system. Judges often fail to properly advise defendants of their statutory rights and when defendants are reminded of their rights, judges routinely fail to give adequate explanations to them. During the 5th Reporting Period of CCHR’s Trial Monitoring Project, judges informed and explained the defendants’ rights to be legally represented and the right to remain silent in only 2% of cases. During the same reporting period judges answered their mobile telephones during 32% of trials. Such conduct undermines the integrity of legal proceedings and does nothing to promote an image of professionalism amongst the judiciary. Pre-trial detention continues to be used in the vast majority of cases, despite the Code of Criminal Procedure of the Kingdom of Cambodia (“CCPC”) clearly stating that an individual accused of an offence should remain at liberty unless in exceptional circumstances when a limited number of criteria apply.
|The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia|
The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (“ECCC”), a hybrid court created by an agreement between the RGC and the United Nations (“UN”) and with jurisdiction over the senior leaders of Democratic Kampuchea and those suspected of being most responsible for grave violations of national and international law committed between 17 April 1975 and 6 January 1979, has now concluded Case 001 with the conviction of Kaing Guek Eav (alias Duch). Duch was convicted for crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions for his role in the establishment and operations of the notorious S-21 detention center and the killing fields at Choeung Ek. After his initial sentence of 35 years was appealed by the Co-Prosecutors, he received a life sentence.
The ECCC is currently hearing Case 002, which involves Nuon Chea (former Chairman of the Democratic Kampuchea National Assembly and Deputy Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea), Khieu Samphan (former Head of State of Democratic Kampuchea) and Ieng Sary (former Deputy Prime Minister for Foreign Affairs). Ieng Thirith, former Social Action Minister, had also been indicted in Case 002 but the court has ruled that she is unfit to stand trial due to her severe dementia, and proceedings against her have been stayed.
Cases 003 and 004 have been surrounded by controversy with suggestions of government interference and an unwillingness to investigate allegations against five further suspects who so far remain unnamed. However, defense lawyers have now been assigned to represent the suspects in these cases, which suggests that some progress may finally be underway.
The ECCC has great potential to leave a positive legacy to the domestic Cambodian court system. Whilst it is by no means a model court, if it does ultimately succeed in applying international fair trial standards to its cases, the application of ECCC jurisprudence in domestic courts can in turn assist in ‘bringing domestic cases into compliance with international standards’. The ECCC’s status as a domestic court means that its decisions are applicable within the domestic courts, but it will only fulfill its potential to have a positive impact on the Cambodian legal system if it is successful in applying international fair trial standards properly and consistently.
|Right to Life|
While the rate of extra-judicial killings has seen a significant decline since the 1990s, there have been a number of unlawful killings in recent years and a failure to properly investigate these recent cases, as well as previous cases involving suspected state-sponsored murders.
2012 saw further delays to the appeal verdict in the case of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, the two men convicted of the 2004 murder of prominent union leader, Chea Vichea, who was gunned down in broad daylight in central Phnom Penh. The absence of any inculpatory evidence linking Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun led the original investigating judge in the case, Hing Thirith, to release the pair. In a case widely criticized as a cover-up of government involvement in the murder, Hing Thirith was promptly dismissed from his position and assigned to work in a remote provincial court. Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were subsequently convicted of murder and each sentenced to 20 years following a ‘grossly unfair trial’. After a failed appeal in 2007, the Supreme Court ordered a re-investigation into the case and the two men were released pending the verdict; the Appeal Court upheld the verdict for the two men on 27 December 2012 and resentenced them to 20 years in prison, despite there having been no new evidence presented at the trial. It is widely believed that the real killers will never be brought to justice.
2012 has also seen the murders of Chut Wutty, Heng Chantha (see Freedom of Assembly section above) and Hang Serei Odum. In the cases of Chut Wutty and Heng Chantha, no investigations into their deaths have taken place; whilst the case of Hang Serei Odum has been investigated, critics have suggested that the investigation has not been thorough or sufficient and his widow believes that other suspects have been allowed to remain at large.
Chut Wutty was a fearless environmental activist and director of the NGO Natural Resources Protection Group. On 26 April 2012, while investigating illegal logging and the suspected harvesting of a vine used in the production of illegal drugs, Chut Wutty was shot dead; during the incident a military police officer, In Rattana was also fatally shot. In the immediate aftermath of the deaths, a number of highly implausible accounts were put forward by the authorities. It was initially reported that In Rattana had opened fire on and killed Chut Wutty, and as he did so, a number of bullets somehow ricocheted off Chut Wutty’s car, in turn killing In Rattana. In the face of widespread disbelief in this version of events, the official story was changed and it was reported that after killing Chut Wutty, In Rattana had turned his gun on himself and committed suicide by shooting himself twice, once in the abdomen and once in the chest. The final version of events was that Ran Boroth, a security officer, accidentally killed In Rattana while trying to disarm him after he had killed Chut Wutty; Ran Boroth accepted that he accidentally killed In Rattana and was convicted and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. 18 months of the sentence was suspended and Ran Borath is now free. Due to the fact that the authorities held In Rattana responsible for Chut Wutty’s death, the murder case against him was dropped in October 2012, since he was the only suspect in the death of Chut Wutty and was also dead. To date, there has been no meaningful investigation into how Chut Wutty was killed.
Hang Serei Odum, a journalist for Virakchun Khmer Daily newspaper was found dead in the boot of his car on 11 September 2012 in Ratanakiri Province. He had been bludgeoned to death. Hand Serei Odum had been reporting on illegal logging and had uncovered cases linked to well-connected members the powerful Cambodian elite. While a military police officer and his wife – who both maintain their innocence - have been charged with premeditated murder, no date has been set for their trial and many commentators believe the investigation has been inadequate and that more suspects are involved.
Geographic isolation in resource rich areas of the country and a failure of the land law framework to adequately provide for collective land ownership have meant that ethnic indigenous minorities in Cambodia are particularly affected and threatened by the extensive sale of Cambodian land to private companies through the form of ELCs. These communities thus often come under the threat of forced evictions and – similarly to other communities – have little access to reparations or remedies. In addition, the process of awarding private land titles – rather than communal or collective ones – is causing the erosion of traditional practices and beliefs. Names of minority groups are also still used frequently as insults, including by senior members of the government and politicians. In November 2012, CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun called Human Rights Party (“HRP”) President Kem Sokha a “Bunong” – the name of an ethnic minority from northeastern Cambodia – to describe him as “uncivilized” on the floor of the National Assembly. After pressure from civil society and in particular the Cambodian Indigenous Youth Association, Chheang Vun pledged to apologize during the next meeting of the National Assembly.
The problems are deep-rooted: under Chapter III, the Constitution grants political rights and civil liberties to “Khmer citizens”, denying the same to minority groups in Cambodia. Due to being displaced in the past and a lack of paperwork, it is difficult for minorities to demonstrate their ancestry. It has been reported that under the current citizenship law, minorities are unable to successfully demonstrate that they are Cambodian citizens, and so have to resort to paying large bribes. The end result is that Cambodian domestic law purports to legitimately deny ethnic minorities many of their basic human rights.
Similarly, racist sentiment continues against Vietnamese nationals living in Cambodia. It has been reported that expressions of Vietnamese identity are sometimes responded to with animosity and that politicians occasionally employ anti-Vietnamese minority slogans. Moreover, Cambodia, a country with a recent history of benefiting from the international refugee framework itself, continues to ‘repatriate’ members of persecuted minorities fleeing Vietnam – these include Christian Montagnards and ethnic Khmer Krom.
Finally, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (“LGBT”) Cambodians continue to suffer from discrimination and abuse, including violence and hate crimes, discrimination in the education sector, the workplace and the health sector, and social and familial exclusion. While homosexuality is not criminalized in Cambodia, the lack of anti-discrimination and anti-hate crime legislation and of policies and strategies to address discrimination against LGBT people means that those subjected to discrimination and violence have little legal recourse.
|State of Democracy in Cambodia|
CPP dominance over government institutions has seriously undermined the provisions in the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia and other relevant legislation that safeguard the democratic process and human rights: a politically pliant judiciary is utilized to harass opposition figures; powerful senators are able to ride roughshod over the land rights of communities; and security services serve the interests of the elite at the expense of the urban and rural poor. The combination of an increasingly repressive environment with a flawed electoral process is resulting in people losing interest in the electoral process: voter turnout during the June 2012 commune council elections was 60%, down from 87% 10 years ago. The dominance of the CPP in all aspects of politics results in an electoral process that is not independent and rarely transparent. In addition to the lack of independence and transparency of the electoral process and the control by the CPP of all organs of state, Cambodian politics is characterized by widespread marginalization and alienation of segments of Cambodian society which have so much to offer to the country: women, youth and small businesses.
Cambodian People’s Party
In the most recent national elections held in July 2008, the CPP won 90 out of 123 seats in the National Assembly (“NA”), its authority strengthened by a constitutional amendment passed in 2006 which lowered the majority required for the NA to grant a vote of confidence to the RGC from 2/3 of its members to an absolute majority, lessening the need to form coalitions and make deals with smaller parties. During Commune/Sangkat Council elections in June 2012, the CPP took 1,592 out of 1,633 seats, which together with its control of the NA illustrates the monopoly that it holds on political power in the country at both the national and sub-national level. Commune/Sangkat Councils serve the local affairs for the interests of the communes and act as an agent of government, performing tasks designated or delegated by the RGC. A cornerstone of the 2004 Rectangular Strategy for Growth, the RGC’s policy of decentralization and de-concentration has cemented the importance of Commune Councils to the development of Cambodia. These communes are responsible for electing the country’s 13,000 village chiefs, and vote for the country’s provincial and district council members.
The dominance of the CPP in all aspects of politics results in an electoral process that is not independent and rarely transparent. The CPP’s control of local administrations ensures control of voter registration resulting in an estimated one million opposition party supporters being disenfranchised – roughly the same number that separated the CPP from the combined opposition vote in the 2008 election.
Extensive CPP control over all government institutions and over the electoral process – via a National Electoral Committee (“NEC”) that is far from independent – has significantly impeded the opposition’s ability to become a counterbalance in Cambodian politics. In 2012, the Sam Rainsy Party (the “SRP”) and the HRP merged to form the Cambodia National Rescue Party (the “CNRP”) in an attempt to consolidate opposition votes and to pose a more formidable and concerted challenge to the CPP in the upcoming national elections. Similarly, Cambodia’s two royalist parties, the Norodom Ranariddh Party (the “NRP”) and the National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia Party (“FUNCINPEC”) merged to form the new Nationalist Party. A number of additional political parties exist: the League for Democracy Party, the Khmer Anti-Poverty Party, the Khmer National Party, the Republic Democratic Party and the Democratic Movement Party. These parties, however, typically win very few seats, if any.
Political campaigning in Cambodia often revolves around personalities, with political parties traditionally being little more than projections of party leaders. As a result, during political campaigns, voters are encouraged to vote for individual personalities rather than on substantive policy issues and party platforms. This is exacerbated by the stifling of the political opposition over the past 20 years, which has resulted in those parties tending to promote radical causes, including strong anti-Vietnamese rhetoric, as a last resort to win votes. Moreover, while the opposition parties seek to project themselves internationally as the defenders of democracy, the combination of failing leadership, limited organization, and poor funding has contributed to the opposition being mostly a reactive force that criticizes government actions without offering alternative and forward-looking policies.
Furthermore, those in the opposition that are currently in the government are often undermined by the CPP. The CPP has frequently used its majority in the National Assembly, for instance, to remove the parliamentary immunity of opposition members, paving the way for court action by the country’s politically-pliant judiciary. This tactic has been used against SRP leader Sam Rainsy and SPR legislators Chan Cheng and Mu Sochua with the obvious intent to silence and undermine the opposition.
Women’s Political Representation
The RGC has committed itself to promoting gender equality through Target 7 of Goal 3 of the Cambodian Millennium Development Goal (“CMDG 3”), which seeks to “eliminate gender disparities in public institutions” by increasing the proportion of seats held by women in various governmental and administrative bodies. The targets are to increase female representation in the National Assembly and Senate to a minimum of 30% and in the Commune/Sangkat Councils to a minimum of 25% by 2015. These commitments have been complemented by various other government policy documents, such as Neary Rattanak I-III, and the National Strategic Development Plan I-II (“NSDP”), both of which provide an extensive outline of the goals, activities, monitoring indicators, conducting agencies and resources for the promotion of gender equality.
Despite these commitments, women remain under-represented in politics, with the level of female representation in some bodies even decreasing in recent elections. In 2003, female representation on the candidate lists for the National Assembly elections amounted to 27%, yet dropped to 12.2% in the 2008 elections, decreasing the overall level of female representation in that body to just 22%. In the Senate, women’s representation has remained at only 14.75% for the past 13 years. In the recent 2012 Commune/Sangkat Council elections, women were elected to just 17.79% of council positions, with only 501 women (representing just 0.45% of total candidates) being placed in the first spot on the candidate lists. These statistics demonstrate the lack of concrete implementation of CMDG commitments and national policies.
You can download the full Human Rights Situation and State of Democracy in Cambodia documents with full references here.