Civil society warns of greater repression to come as Cambodia, for the first time in 27 years, did not officially celebrate Human Rights Day following its removal from the list of public holidays.
PHNOM PENH–Civil society organizations on Dec. 10 were forced to take their celebration of Human Rights Day online amid Cambodia’s latest community outbreak of COVID-19, but they maintained that the day—now stripped of its status of official public holiday—remains valuable, particularly in light of the deteriorating rights situation that has defined 2020.
Issuing a joint statement on Dec. 10, some 67 civil society organizations, trade unions, NGOs and communities called upon the government to do more to uphold the basic, fundamental rights of the people it purports to represent.
“On Human Rights Day, we call on the [government] to respect their human rights commitments by immediately ceasing the ongoing attack against all voices of dissent in the country, and releasing those arbitrarily detained for legitimately exercising their fundamental freedoms,” the statement read, noting that the government’s tolerance for critical voices appears to have lessened in the past 12 months.
The statement pointed to the string of arrests that have been made throughout the year, with activists of all stripes falling within the government’s crosshairs. Despite the complaints and concerns of the UN, foreign ambassadors and the international community at large, Cambodia’s crackdown on dissent has continued unabated.
This, the signatories to the joint statement argued, was precisely why Human Rights Day still holds an emblematic value for the development of the nation.
“The removal of this public holiday is symbolic of the [government’s] unwillingness to promote human rights, and coincides with the increasing repression of human rights, fundamental freedoms and democracy in Cambodia,” the statement read.
A Year Littered with Rights Abuses and Restrictions
Looking back at 2020, the statement highlighted the myriad legislative attacks on human rights, free speech and other rights deemed both necessary to a functional democracy and inherent to humanity under the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
From the controversial Law on the Management of the Nation in the State of Emergency, which—adopted into Cambodian law in April 2020—was widely seen as a naked power grab by rights advocates, to the slew of restrictive laws currently being drafted, including the Public Order Law, the sub-decree on the National Internet Gateway and the Cybercrime Law, there is little optimism that 2021 will offer Cambodians more freedoms.
Beyond the introduction of widely-criticized, rights-threatening legislation, the government has further entrenched the culture of self-censorship with Prime Minister Hun Sen himself threatening human rights defenders, threatening to have critics arrested and security forces breaking up peaceful protests on the anniversary of the Paris Peace Agreement with violent police tactics.
As such, for many civil society organizations, the landscape in which they operate has changed. The void left following the Supreme Court’s dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP)—the only viable opposition party—has led to a politicization of human rights. This has left civil society actors struggling to fill the gap in holding the government accountable in relation to the fundamental rights of Cambodians.
“The impact of COVID-19 has changed the way that we operate as civil rights groups who prominently work to advocate for improvement of the human rights situation in Cambodia,” explained Khun Tharo, program manager at the labor rights group CENTRAL.
Noting that the restriction on civil rights, freedom of association, assembly and expression has led to smaller Human Rights Day celebrations this year, he added that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been used as an excuse for the government to target vulnerable groups.
“Cambodia always has been at the bottom of [every] human rights index, indicating its failure to improve the human right situation and has been strongly criticized by the international community [as a result]—the government views human rights group as affiliated agencies of the opposition party,” Tharo said, stressing that repressive legislation such as the Law on Associations and NGOs, along with the Trade Union Law, had stifled the voices of civil society.
“Civil society organizations cannot operate freely unless the government is willing to reopen civil rights and political rights back like in 2013, before the general election, as well as amending the current legislation to allow the civil society to work freely as guaranteed by the Cambodia Constitution,” he said. “Civil society is one pillar, but we need the real driver of legitimate opposition parties to ensure the government upholds its obligations as well.”
The Need for Civil Rights and Political Freedoms in Cambodia
Former opposition party leader Kem Sokha called on Cambodians of all backgrounds, especially those with power, to promote and respect human rights—including civil and political rights—without discrimination and without regarding the Cambodian people as enemies.
He said he did not consider the raising of human rights issues as an interference in internal affairs or a violation of sovereignty, as the government has often claimed in response to criticism over its human rights record.
“Only full respect for human rights can bring real stability, peace and sustainable development to the people,” he said via his official Facebook page.
“Human rights are the dignity of everyone, which nothing can replace. In order to ensure that everyone in society enjoys the basic interests and rights, they need to have guarantees and respect for civil and political rights, which enable them to decide their own destiny and nation,” he said, adding that he has tried to promote these values in the name of peace for more than 30 years.
Cambodians are not alone in experiencing a shrinking civic space in the wake of the pandemic. According to data analyzed by the CIVICUS Monitor—a collaborative effort of organizations that measure civic freedoms in 196 countries—90 percent of Asian nations saw greater restrictions on civic freedoms since the start of the pandemic.
Indeed, 87 percent of the world’s population now live in countries where civic space is considered closed, repressed or at least obstructed.
Factors of Repression
Cambodia was categorized by CIVICUS as “repressed” following “a continued campaign by the Hun Sen government” of arbitrarily arresting and prosecuting former CNRP members and their families. CIVICUS confirmed that the introduction of new, repressive legislation had also factored into their assessment of freedom in Cambodia.
Furthermore, the ongoing crackdown on critics, the failure to carry out an effective investigation into the forced disappearance of Thai activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit and the blocking of commemoration events held on the anniversary of Kem Ley’s murder also indicated that the space for Cambodians to exercise basic, constitutionally-guaranteed rights has been eroded.
In recognition of Human Rights Day, the families of jailed activists called on the government to respect the rights of people to participate peacefully in civil discourse.
“It really hurts me that the court charged my sister,” said Phuon Leakhena, sister of Phoun Keoreaksmey—an environmentalist arrested on Sept. 3 for staging a three-person protest against the government’s plans to fill in Phnom Penh’s lakes.
“She was charged with incitement to commit a felony, even though she did not commit any crime,” her sister said. “She is an environmental activist and her actions to protect the environment and her right as a citizen to participate in social work: Today is Dec. 10, International Human Rights Day, as Cambodia is a democracy that respects human rights, so the court must release my sister.”
However, for Chin Malin—spokesperson for the government-operated Cambodian Human Rights Committee—people should not request the release of activists jailed during the recent crackdown, claiming that Cambodia’s courts are independent and should not be questioned.
Taking to Facebook from quarantine, Malin said that people should not use Human Rights Day to criticize and demean the government. He warned against making exaggerated, distorted political messages that did not abide by Cambodian law.
Malin then repeated nearly word-for-word earlier comments parroted by numerous government officials in their defense of detaining activists and human rights defenders, saying that activists cannot break the law to defend human rights. This is despite the well-documented partisan nature of Cambodia’s judiciary and the more recent use of legal attacks to silence critics.
Human Rights Outlook Grim for 2021
While today’s celebrations were muted by contrast to previous years—a result of both the ongoing pandemic and the increasing hostility the government bears towards human rights defenders—analysts fear that the worst is yet to come.
“Dropping Human Rights Day from the holiday calendar is the basic equivalent of Hun Sen giving the UN Human Rights Council, and the wider cause of human rights, the middle finger,” said Phil Robertson, deputy-director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “There’s no other description for it.”
Robertson echoed the warnings of both CIVICUS and CENTRAL’s Tharo, noting that the introduction of new legislation will restrict Cambodians freedoms both online and off.
“If Hun Sen has his way, the slide of Cambodia into full blown dictatorship will be finalized in 2021,” Robertson predicted.
“He’s going after internet freedom with the draft cybercrime law and the sub-decree to create a single internet gateway, and he wants to control how people speak, dress and act in public with the draft Public Order act,” he said. “Any time he wants to assume North Korean style powers, all he has to do is manufacture a crisis and invoke the recently passed State of Emergency act.”
The only glimmer of hope for a better Human Rights Day next year, as far as Robertson was concerned, is the determination of the Cambodian people.
“The Cambodian people believe in their rights,” Robertson said. “They have repeatedly shown over the years that they are prepared to fight for them.”