Last Thursday, August 22, police blocked people from attending a forum at a private home in Cambodia’s Battambang city. They closed several roads in the vicinity and photographed those who managed to attend.
The Cambodian Center for Independent Media, a non-governmental group, organised the forum to facilitate discussions about the recent national election of July 28.
Representatives of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) attended, while the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the National Election Committee apparently declined to participate.
According to a report in the Phnom Penh Post ("Forum leads to clashes", August 23), Battambang city’s police chief tried to justify the police’s actions, saying that the forum was “illegal” because the organisers had failed to seek permission to hold it from the provincial-level authorities.
In fact, the authorities’ actions in trying to prevent the forum violated a number of human rights, in particular the right to peaceful assembly.
The incident serves as a reminder of the precarious situation of the right to peaceful assembly in Cambodia, and is also indicative of the apparent confusion surrounding this right in the tense post-election period.
Freedom of peaceful assembly is the right for people to come together to express their views. This can serve many purposes, and the right covers many activities, including meetings such as the forum in Battambang, spontaneous assemblies, demonstrations, rallies, sit-ins and parades.
The right is protected in Cambodia’s Constitution and in Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Cambodia is a party.
Restrictions on the right, such as notification requirements, are permissible only when provided by law, for the legitimate purpose of protecting certain specific public interests or others’ rights, and only if they are demonstrably necessary and proportionate to achieve that purpose.
Restrictions like those imposed on the forum in Battambang are simply not permissible.
The authorities apparently did not attempt to argue that the restrictions were necessary to meet one of the legitimate purposes, and indeed, given that this was a meeting in a private home, it is hard to imagine how they could have.
Further, Cambodia’s Law on Peaceful Assembly only requires organisers to notify local authorities about assemblies, not receive permission. The forum organisers had informed the commune-level authorities. As emphasised by the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, “the exercise of fundamental freedoms should not be subject to previous authorisation by the authorities.”
It is useful also to consider the right to peaceful assembly in the context of the opposition CNRP holding large meetings in the capital Phnom Penh and raising the possibility of mass demonstrations.
The CPP caretaker government has responded by increasing significantly the presence of security forces in the capital and warning of counter demonstrations.
Some are concerned that mass demonstrations could turn violent. But if a hypothetical risk of violence is used to justify restricting assemblies, then the right to peaceful assembly will have very little meaning in practice.
And it is important to emphasise that in a situation when an assembly does turn violent, this cannot be used to justify human rights violations.
In particular, the state must always respect and protect the right to life. The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms, for example, require that any use of force be only such as is necessary and proportionate, including during the policing of violent assemblies. The intentional lethal use of firearms can only be justified when unavoidable in order to protect life.
Where a small minority tries to turn a peaceful assembly violent, law enforcement officials should protect the peaceful participants and not use the violence of a few as a pretext to restrict the rights of the majority.
Further, as the UN Special Rapporteur has noted, “organisers of peaceful assemblies should never be held liable for the unlawful behaviour of others.”
The Cambodian people have the right to understand and enjoy their human rights, including the right to peaceful assembly.
They should not be confused by suggestions that peaceful demonstrations are somehow wrong, be subjected to unlawful restrictions when trying to exercise this right, or face intimidation by the authorities’ unnecessary show of force.
Should the people choose to exercise their right to freedom of peaceful assembly and participate in demonstrations and other assemblies, the authorities must respect and facilitate this decision, abide by their human rights obligations and ensure that unnecessary or excessive force is not used against participants.
Political leaders, meanwhile, should call on their supporters – including those joining demonstrations – not to commit human rights abuses against others.
Rupert Abbott is Amnesty International’s Researcher on Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam