The Cambodian government has severely restricted fundamental freedoms over the past year, making it “increasingly difficult” for rights defenders, land rights protestors and unionists to operate freely in the country, according to Human Rights Watch.
In its latest global rights report, released in New York on Monday, HRW also called on the Kingdom’s foreign donors to “forcefully challenge” increased restrictions on rights in Cambodia.
The 649-page report catalogues a series of developments last year that it claimed led to a strengthening of the Cambodian government’s “chokehold” on human rights. High on the organisation’s list of concerns was the increased disregard shown by officials for United Nations representatives and other foreign diplomats.
“The Cambodian government has used bluster and intimidation to push the UN and donors into silence about abuses,” Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director, said in a statement accompanying the report’s release.
“The international community needs to advocate more forcefully for the human rights of the Cambodian people.”
In March, Prime Minister Hun Sen threatened to expel UN resident coordinator Douglas Broderick after he criticised the swift passage of the government’s anti-graft legislation. In October, during the visit to Cambodia of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Hun Sen ordered the closure of the UN’s human rights office in Phnom Penh. The order followed an earlier warning that the head of the office, Christophe Peschoux, could face expulsion for his criticisms of the deportation of two Thai Red Shirt activists in July.
The HRW report also claims that the introduction of a new “draconian” Penal Code, in addition to the drafting of new laws regulating trade unions and the country’s large NGO sector, represent threats to the rights of freedom of association and assembly.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party used the judiciary, new laws, and threats of arrest or legal action to restrict free speech, jail government critics, disperse workers and farmers peacefully protesting, and silence opposition party members,” it said.
As an example, the report cited the prosecution of opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who was sentenced in absentia to a total of 12 years in prison on “trumped-up” charges relating to his campaign to exposed alleged Vietnamese border encroachments.
It also documented the case of Seng Kunnaka, a UN World Food Programme staffer who was convicted and jailed last month on incitement charges after printing out a web article critical of the government.
In addition, the the Kingdom’s spate of land grabbing and forced evictions continued apace in 2010. During the first half of the year, more than 3,500 families – totaling around 17,000 people – were affected by land-grabbing in 13 provinces, the report states, citing figures from local rights group Licadho. Up to 60 people were also imprisoned or awaiting trial for protesting against evictions and land seizures.
The report added that about 2,000 people were “arbitrarily detained” in 11 government drug detention centers. Up to 60 cases of torture were reported in the first half of 2010 alone.
“Cambodia’s donors need to wake up and recognise that the human rights situation in Cambodia is rapidly deteriorating,” Robertson said.
“They should demand that the government abide by its human rights obligations, and they should be front-line defenders of civil society against government intimidation.”
Om Yentieng, head of the government-run Cambodian Human Rights Committee, said he was too busy to comment yesterday. But Tith Sothea, a spokesman for the Press and Quick Reaction Unit at the Council of Ministers, defended the government’s progress on Tuesday, saying HRW’s report “lacks accuracy”.
“It is the report that is poisoning the environment. It is the report that does not express the truth about the process of democracy and law implementation,” he said, adding that the government had taken actions to strengthen the rule of law.
“So the report has no value: we consider it like rubbish.”
Members of the opposition said the report reflected the reality in Cambodia.
Sam Rainsy Party spokesman Yim Sovann said the party was “extremely concerned” by the erosion of freedom of expression, pointing to the legal prosecution of its parliamentarians in the country’s CPP-dominated court system.
“The international community should play a role, should do something, to put pressure on the government to respect freedom of expression. No one can curb corruption without freedom of expression,” he said.
He said the government’s increasingly bellicose attitude towards the UN and outspoken foreign officials was also a bad sign, which could eventually alienate Western governments.
“We cannot live alone, due to globalisation,” he said. “If we want to isolate ourselves, I think we will commit suicide.” ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SAM RITH