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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - BROKEN PROMISES: How Economic Concessions Undermine the ICESCR

BROKEN PROMISES: How Economic Concessions Undermine the ICESCR

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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,

traumatized nation.

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

of soil.

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.

Conclusion

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.

Rachael Bankes

Intern, Harvard Law School

Theary C. Seng

Executive Director

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. 

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