Marking international Human Rights Day, 22 civil society organisations joined forces on Saturday to call on the government to live up to Cambodia’s international commitments.
The event, attended by more than 300 people at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, carried the theme that “Independent judiciary and freedom of expression are foundations for social justice and respect for human rights”.
“The government institutions of this nation need to take action to stop the increasing restriction of freedom of expression and civil society participation,” a joint statement released by the 22 organisations said.
The event was attended by UN Special Rapporteur Surya Subedi, who has been in the country to gauge the state of human rights, US Embassy Charge d’affairs Jeff Daigle and King Sihamoni’s spokesman, Prince Norodom Chakkrapong, who is Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s brother.
However, only low-ranking delegates from the Royal Government, which did not organise any celebrations or events, attended the event.
Speaking at the event, Subedi called on the government to respect human rights and democracy.
“Cambodia has seen rapid development, but this development must be paralleled with respect for human rights,” said Subedi, who added he “thus far” had a “cordial” relationship with the government.
Nepalese-born Subedi told the Post he had been monitoring human rights in Cambodia since the post-Khmer Rouge regime period.
“The number one ongoing human rights issue in this country is land rights,” Subedi said. “Number two is freedom of expression, number three is impunity and number four is freedom of association and assembly.
“Cambodia has voluntarily ratified a number of human rights treaties,” he said. “The importance is in making sure that those treaties are implemented properly . . . capacity and independence has to be there.”
Daigle applauded the “peaceful human rights defenders in Cambodia”. “We know the struggle continues, but we recognise your efforts and sacrifices in service to humankind,” he said.
He said the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that everyone is entitled to fair and equal protection under the law and Cambodia’s constitution makes clear that the country’s judiciary is to be independent from the other two branches of the government.
“Certainly, the Royal Government of Cambodia bears responsibility for ensuring that its citizens’ rights are upheld, but individuals and civil society organisations also share in this task,” Daigle said.
“To be effective, civil society must continue to have the space to operate, and citizens must understand their rights and be empowered to peacefully advocate for them.”
Press and Quick Reaction Unit spokesman Tith Sothea said criticisms of the government’s work to support and protect human rights were not “valuable”.
“Cambodia may have some issues with human rights abuse, but no country in the world is led perfectly.”