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UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith (right) speaks to the press in Phnom Penh last month.
UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith (right) speaks to the press in Phnom Penh last month. Photo supplied

Government taken to task at UN meet

The UN’s special rapporteur on Cambodia yesterday slammed the Kingdom’s government at the 36th session of the UN Human Rights Council, going so far as to express doubt as to whether next year’s crucial elections will be free and fair.

During the session, Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith said that civil society and the opposition faced severe threats.

“Restrictions of the democratic space and undermining of democratic institutions have reached an unprecedented level in Cambodia’s post-1993 history,” she said. “The country seems to be moving inexorably towards a precipice.”

She argued that opposition leader Kem Sokha’s arrest – on widely criticised charges of “treason” – was illegal due to his parliamentary immunity, and that bypassing his immunity on the grounds that it was an in flagrante delicto offence was unfounded. The constitution allows for the arrest of lawmakers if they are caught in flagrante delicto – or “red-handed” – but Sokha’s charges stem from a speech recorded in 2013.

Even in such cases, the constitution calls for a two-thirds vote to lift a member’s immunity. Though the ruling Cambodian People’s Party holds just over half of the body’s seats, it nonetheless maintained it could allow Sokha’s prosecution to proceed. Smith noted that this was the fourth time in two years this strategy had been used to arrest opposition lawmakers.

Smith said recent controversial amendments to the Law on Political Parties – which targeted the opposition and broadened the grounds for the dissolution of parties – had severely impacted democracy. “In practice, the fate of the political opposition appears to be in the hands of the executive,” she said.

But it was not only the opposition under threat, she said. The 2015 Law on Associations and NGOs, she said, imposed unreasonable restrictions on civil society through vaguely defined stipulations that NGOs be politically “neutral”.

“In contemporary Cambodia, almost anything can be alleged political. Calls for respect for human rights and democracy are now branded as political manipulation and biased attacks against the government,” she said.

This, in conjunction with a “dramatic reduction in freedom of the media” – with numerous independent outlets recently shuttered – meant the fairness of elections next year was at stake, she added.

“The regular violent rhetoric of government ministers and senior military officers creates fear, a barrier to free elections,” she said, referring to frequent veiled threats against the opposition and vows to crush so-called “colour revolutions”.

“With power comes responsibility and regular threats and scaremongering has no place in a peaceful society.”

However, Phay Siphan, a government spokesman, yesterday rejected the rapporteur’s assessment. “She’s not fair. She’s very biased,” he said.

“She is nobody in Cambodia . . . She’s a tourist,” he continued, asking Smith to “spend more time reading” Cambodian law.

“We’re not monkeys. We don’t need a teacher like her to [tell us] to do this or that,” he added.

Cambodian Ambassador to the UN Ney Samol echoed the sentiment at the session. He accused Smith of “cherry-picking”, arguing her report not only undermined his government’s determination for progress, but also posed “serious risk to the credibility of the entire United Nations human rights system”.

But Smith’s comments were widely endorsed by the EU, numerous countries and NGOs participating in the session.

The EU representative called charges against activists and opposition members, including Sokha, “politically motivated”, and seconded Smith’s assertion that Sokha’s immunity had been breached.

The World Organisation against Torture pointed to the recent “arbitrary detention” of environmental activists, and called the situation a “rapidly deteriorating attack against civil society”.

The International Commission of Jurists, meanwhile, condemned the lack of independence in the judiciary. “What is happening in Cambodia today has nothing to do with the rule of law.”

This article has been amended to include the correct name for the International Commission of Jurists.
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