Civil society groups and human rights non-governmental organizations knew in 2019 that it would be the last time International Human Rights Days would be a holiday, after the government did away with five national holidays to increase annual work days.
Cambodian celebrations on December 10 were not only to commemorate an international document making human rights indisputable but also an occasion for Cambodian citizens to express their opinions on these rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution.
But after muted celebrations in 2019, the novel coronavirus pandemic has brought this year’s celebrations to a dead stop. The day, normally marked with colorful marches and events across the country, will have to instead make use of social media platforms to promote the human rights charter.
Phnom Penh City Hall last week informed around 50 civil society groups their request for an event last Sunday at the new Freedom Park in the city’s northern district of Russei Keo was not getting the permission to go ahead. The city government asked the NGOs to consider postponing their celebrations to another date.
The city is currently gripped in the first instance of community transmission in Cambodia, where at least 38 COVID-19 cases have been reported after thousands have been tested. The government has banned any gatherings above 20 people, shut down the Interior Ministry and continues to scramble to get ahead of the transmission.
Soeng Senkaruna, a senior investigator at rights group ADHOC, said that in normal circumstances it would be a violation of the people’s rights to prevent a peaceful gathering. But, civil society groups have agreed to move the celebrations online, he said, and at a later date.
“Even though there is a postponement, we are not stopping the marking of Human Rights Day. We will do it online and dispatch messaging on Facebook,” he said.
He said there had been considerable tightening of how NGOs could celebrate the day, with City Hall and provincial governments increasing restrictions on the day, even before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Phnom Penh City Hall Spokesperson Met Measpheakdey said the city government would reconsider the prohibition on gatherings once the government had a better hold of the COVID-19 cluster in the city.
“We do not allow the organizing of an event in these circumstances and when the situation eases off we will reconsider,” he said.
Chin Malin, deputy president of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, questioned the intentions of the civil society groups and if they wanted to accelerate the spread of the coronavirus by holding a large gathering.
“They have demanded for one day to gather. Is this to protect the lives of people who are facing the spread of COVID-19 or not?” he said.
Malin said the government and Cambodian Human Rights Committee will not organize any events on December 10 but will issue human rights material to people.
The committee also released a video on Fresh News pushing the narrative that Prime Minister Hun Sen was responsible for the rights enjoyed by Cambodians through his “Win-Win” policies. The prime minister has long been accused of abusing human rights in the country, including land grabs, environmental degradation, arrest of critics and dissidents, and accusations of political assassinations.
The Banteay Meanchey provincial government told three NGOs and associations they could not conduct an event with people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We do not allow them to hold the event because they are wrongly gathering about 300 to 400 people when we are facing a COVID-19 [outbreak],” said Oum Reatrey, Banteay Meanchey provincial governor said.
Moeun Tola, executive director at Central and one of the NGOs organizing the event, said that some countries, including Cambodia, had taken advantage of the pandemic to further infringe on the rights of people. He pointed out restrictions on gatherings were only in place in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap province.
“For me, I have viewed that some governments, including Cambodia, have taken the COVID-19 issue as a pretext to cause a decline in human rights,” he said.
He hoped that sub-national authorities would compromise and allow civil society groups to hold the events in areas where there was not a high risk of COVID-19.
Chak Sopheap, executive director at Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the Cambodian government had intensified its crackdown on the fundamental freedoms of free expression, peaceful assembly and continued to arrest human rights defenders, journalists and political activists.
“The government must ensure that COVID-19 is not used as a tool to suppress Human Rights Day celebrations unnecessarily,” Sopheap said.