The Center for Social Development would like to commend the Cambodian Government
for ending civil strife and bringing "negative peace" (the absence of war)
to the land. This Government, however, could do more to bring about "positive
peace" where there is the presence of justice, particularly in the area of economic
land concessions. As acknowledged by the Prime Minister himself, the growing unrest
associated with land issues could lead to a "farmers' revolution" and fundamentally
challenges the establishment of a just peace and a just society in an already fragile,
International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights
On 22 August 1992, following the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements the previous
year, Cambodia acceded to the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural
Rights (ICESCR or Covenant). The ICESCR, which was drafted under the Charter of the
United Nations, entered into force on 3 January 1976 and currently has 66 signatories
and 156 parties.
The Preamble to the Covenant states that "the ideal of free human beings enjoying
freedom from fear and want can only be achieved if conditions are created whereby
everyone may enjoy his economic, social and cultural rights, as well as his civil
and political rights."
Despite the fact that Cambodia has been a party to the ICESCR for nearly fifteen
years, the Government has done little to fulfill its obligations under the instrument.
In fact, the Government has failed to submit a single report to the UN Economic and
Social Council, an obligation under ICESCR (Article 16), and it consistently adopts
policies that directly undermine the goals of the Covenant.
Economic Land Concessions
The Government's attack on the economic, social, and cultural rights of its citizens
has most recently taken the form of economic land concessions. In the fifteen years
since Cambodia ratified the ICESCR, the Government has granted 59 land concessions
totaling nearly one million hectares, or over 5% of Cambodia's total land mass, to
various commercial entities.
Although the 2001 Land Law and the 2005 Sub-Decree on Economic Land Concessions (2005
Sub-Decree) purport to govern the granting of economic concessions in accordance
with the economic, social, and cultural rights of the Cambodian people, the implementation
of these two pieces of legislation has left much to be desired. As a result of this
failure to implement, the rights of citizens under the ICESCR have been infringed.
This Voice of Justice column seeks to highlight a few of the rights set forth in
the ICESCR and the ways in which economic concessions are violating these rights,
and to urge the Government to comply with its obligations.
The Right to Favorable Work Conditions
Article 7 of the ICESCR codifies "the right of everyone to the enjoyment of
just and favorable conditions of work," including the right to fair wages and
the right to rest and leisure time. Rather than taking affirmative steps towards
the realization of the right to favorable work conditions, the Government continues
to erode this right by granting economic concessions that are not in the interest
of Cambodia's workers.
Approximately 75% of Cambodian people work in agriculture and depend upon the land
for their survival. When lands are privatized, devastating consequences often follow.
While the proponents of economic concessions insist that granting land to private
developers will lead to an increase in employment opportunities for the rural poor,
experience has shown that the opposite is often true. Many residents of concession
areas have reported that workers are brought in from outside and no new jobs are
created for locals. Even when new jobs are created, day laborers report conditions
akin to "forced labor" and wages up to 50% lower than what they earned
off of the land prior to the granting of the concession.
The Right to be Free from Hunger
Article 11 of the ICESCR sets forth the right to an adequate standard of living,
a central component of which is the right to be free from hunger. According to the
World Food Program, approximately 35% of the Cambodian population is malnourished,
and reports indicate that economic concessions in at least eleven provinces are exacerbating
the food crisis.
In Sre Ambel and Botum Sakor, the Koh Kong Sugar Industry and Koh Kong Plantation
Company concessions have led to the loss of farming land for hundreds of families.
These families are no longer able to produce adequate quantities of food and are
struggling to survive on what rice they have stored from last year.
The Right to a Healthy Environment
Under Article 12 of the ICESCR, Cambodian citizens are entitled "to the enjoyment
of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health," which includes
the right to a healthy environment.
Lands conceded to private developers are generally devoted to export crop monoculture,
an unsustainable agricultural practice that has devastating effects on local ecosystems.
Forests are cleared to make way for plantations dedicated to the large-scale cultivation
of a single crop, which leads to the destruction of biodiversity and the erosion
The 2005 Sub-Decree stipulates that a concession may only be granted if five criteria
are met, including the completion of "environmental and social impact assessments,"
but these assessments never take place in most cases.
Even when huge amounts of land are involved, as with the Pheapimex Concession totaling
315,025 hectares in Kampong Chhnang and Pursat provinces, no consideration is given
to the probable environmental impacts of the planned use of the concession area.
As a result, families living in the vicinity of the Pheapimex Concession will likely
be dealing with the effects of deforestation, eucalyptus monoculture, and paper factory
pollution for generations to come.
The Right to Take Part in Cultural Life
Although most of the ICESCR's articles deal with economic and social rights, Article
15 states that parties to the Covenant shall "recognize the right of everyone
[...] to take part in cultural life" and take steps "necessary for the
conservation, the development and the diffusion of [...] culture." In addition,
the 2005 Sub-Decree states that concession proposals are to be reviewed with a view
toward the "avoidance or minimizing of adverse social impacts."
Despite these legal protections, villagers in six different provinces have come forward
with claims that concessions are encroaching on culturally significant lands. As
a result of the Wuzishan Concession in Mondolkiri province, for example, sacred burial
grounds of the Phnong people have been desecrated. Meanwhile, in Kampong Speu, the
New Cosmos Development Company has barred the Suy indigenous people from accessing
spiritually important sites.
While the full realization of the rights set forth in the ICESCR may seem like an
impossibility in a country with limited financial resources at its disposal, Article
2 of the Covenant states that "[each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes
to take steps [...] to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving
progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant
by all appropriate means [...]."
It is time for the Cambodian Government to fulfill its obligations under the ICESCR,
stem the emergence of any farmer's revolution, and establish an environment for a
more just society. Ensuring that economic land concessions are granted within the
spirit and bound of the 2001 Land Law and in accordance with the criteria enumerated
in the Sub-Decree on Economic Land Concessions would be a step in the right direction,
and Cambodians will not know freedom from want until this Government takes it.
Intern, Harvard Law School
Theary C. Seng
The Voice of Justice column is a regular feature of the Phnom Penh
Post. Both the column and the logo are expressions of the Center for Social
Development (CSD) which bears full responsibility for the opinions expressed.