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People march along a road in Kampong Speu’s Samrong Tong district earlier this week in the lead up to International Human Rights Day.
People march along a road in Kampong Speu’s Samrong Tong district earlier this week in the lead up to International Human Rights Day. LICADHO

Human rights in Cambodia

Amid the high-profile human rights violations and chaos that characterise the current political climate in Cambodia, it may seem somewhat bizarre that we observe a national holiday in honour of International Human Rights Day.

The 67th commemoration of the adoption of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, however, provides a fitting opportunity to reflect on the past, present and, most importantly, the future of human rights in the Kingdom.

Four weeks ago, an arrest warrant was issued for opposition leader Sam Rainsy. This was the highest-profile event in a year that has been marked by multiple restrictions on human rights and fundamental freedoms.

This warrant, if executed, would see Sam Rainsy join Senator Hong Sok Hour and 11 other opposition activists in prison, jailed for their opposition to the ruling regime.

In each of these cases, the arrests, convictions and warrants were politically motivated and executed by a judiciary lacking in independence.

The issuing of the warrant for Sam Rainsy follows the savage beating of two opposition lawmakers outside the National Assembly in October – an incident widely reported to have been orchestrated by the ruling party.

Aside from the political opposition, the royal government of Cambodia has additionally targeted a variety of other groups that it views as opposed to its interests; namely, non-governmental organisations, trade unions, human rights defenders and ordinary people who dare to speak out against government malpractice.

Recently adopted legislation, such as the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations (LANGO), represents a clear attempt to limit freedom of expression and association. In the background, Cambodia’s countless victims of land grabbing struggle to make their voices heard amid the pervasive political instability.

In this oppressive context, one could be forgiven for believing that the human rights movement in Cambodia has floundered.

This year’s International Human Rights Day is devoted to the launch of a yearlong campaign commemorating 50 years since the adoption of the two most important human rights treaties of all: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

While the incidents highlighted above primarily relate to violations of civil and political rights, it is equally important to consider Cambodia’s progress in the realm of economic and social rights.

Asian leaders often claim that the human rights movement unjustly focuses on civil and political rights, while ignoring progress for economic and social rights, such as access to adequate housing, health care and education.

Cambodia’s leaders, however, would struggle to succeed with such an argument. GDP continues to surge and skyscrapers and shopping malls now crowd the Phnom Penh skyline.

Yet these developments cast a long shadow, leaving the vast majority of the Cambodian people – who gain little or no benefit from Cambodian-style crony capitalism – in the dark.

According to the latest figures from the World Bank, 32 per cent (or approximately 0.5 million) of Cambodian children under 5 years old are stunted due to malnutrition, and 82 per cent (12.2 million people) of Cambodia’s people do not have access to piped water supply.

Nevertheless, any serious assessment of Cambodia’s human rights situation must also recognise the significant achievements of the Cambodian human rights movement since the end of the civil war in 1991.

The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), along with partner human rights organisations, has spent many years working to empower citizens to advocate for their rights in every corner of the country. Community outreach, human rights training, and public forums conducted by Cambodia’s human rights organisations have had a deep and lasting impact on the population, as well as the sociopolitical landscape of the Kingdom.

For a country at Cambodia’s stage in development, it is remarkable how many Cambodians are aware of their human rights – and how to stand up for them. The democratising effect of this work cannot be overstated. As a result, the Cambodian people today are not likely to allow their rights to be violated without mounting a response.

The impact can be seen from the protests that regularly fill the streets of Phnom Penh, to the community solidarity in the face of land grabbing in Cambodia’s remote provincial villages; everywhere, Cambodian people are standing up for their rights in the face of injustice.

Typically, Phnom Penh City Hall officials have refused to allow NGOs to conduct a peaceful march through the city for this year’s International Human Rights Day – citing traffic concerns and public security as justifications.

The government, it appears, is increasingly nervous about large gatherings of people in the capital – as also evidenced by the recent cancellation of the Water Festival. Cambodia has one of the youngest populations in the world.

Our young people understand their rights, and they are willing to stand up for them – often at significant personal risk. The government is well aware of this, and feels threatened by this people power. But the government surely also recognises that it can’t continue to repress dissent forever.

The tide of empowered youth is simply too strong, and within the youth lies the hope for a brighter future – one based on equality and respect for human rights.

Right across Cambodia today, determined communities – many of them victims of the government’s attitude towards human rights and development – are holding events to mark International Human Rights Day.

These activists and communities are supported by a vibrant civil society, encompassing many determined and well-organised human rights advocates.

The impact of the Cambodian human rights movement’s work to empower the younger generation will be felt for many years to come.

It would take much, much more than a cancelled march and an NGO law to undo this work. From the perspective of those who wish to curtail human rights, the “damage” has already been done.

Chak Sopheap is the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

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