The Permanent Mission of Cambodia to the United Nations in Geneva shot back at the UN human rights office (OHCHR) yesterday for criticising what it characterised as the Kingdom’s deteriorating political climate, claiming the criticism was “unverified” and “politically motivated”.
On Friday, OHCHR spokeswoman Liz Throssel, noting next year’s important national election, expressed concerns about “the overall deterioration of the environment for . . . civil society” in Cambodia following the expulsion of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the revoking of licences for some radio frequencies and the threatened closure of the English-language newspaper the Cambodia Daily.
The Cambodian mission’s statement, published early yesterday morning, rebukes the allegations as based on “hearsay”.
“These measures have nothing to do with the upcoming National Assembly election next year as illusorily claimed by the [OHCHR] Spokesperson,” it further notes, before appearing to accuse shuttered media outlets of inciting “rebellion”.
Earlier this month, the Cambodia Daily was threatened with closure if it fails to pay a purported $6.3 million tax bill by Monday, and NDI was shut last Thursday and its foreign staff given one week to leave the country.
Similarly, at least 15 radio stations were asked to stop broadcasting by the Information Ministry – a move that disproportionately affected independent broadcasters Radio Free Asia, Voice of Democracy and Voice of America.
Cambodia’s UN Ambassador Ney Samol said that those who interpreted recent developments as a “threat” showed “political motivation”.
But OHCHR’s Throssel maintained her position yesterday. “We stand by our statement,” she said in an email.
Cambodian Center for Human Rights Executive Director Chak Sopheap argued in an email that recent moves were intended to prevent critical voices from being heard.
“This onslaught against independent media and civil society constitutes an effort to deny the Cambodian people of their constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of expression and information, and to participation in public life,” she said.
But Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the acts directed against news outlets and the expelling of NDI were legally justified.
“The government took actions against a number of outlets because they didn’t comply with the Ministry of Information,” he said. “And we have the mandate to expel anyone who is a government threat or a threat to national security.”
Siphan added that the Daily had to discuss the matter with the Tax Department, whose chief, Kong Vibol, was “waiting for them to show up and talk”. The department and the Daily did meet on Friday, though neither party has disclosed details of the meeting.
Sopheap, meanwhile, said the tax law was a tool being employed by the government. “The use of administrative legal provisions as a basis for this repression must be seen for what it is: an attempt by the government to shelter itself from domestic and international criticism,” she said.
The permanent mission, however, argued that the Kingdom was able to respect human rights on its own terms. “Cambodia is no longer in an infancy stage, we are adequately mature . . . not expecting to be spoon-fed,” the statement reads.
Human Rights Watch’s Asia Deputy Director Phil Robertson said the mission’s arguments were flawed, and drew comparison to the Vietnamese government, which he said argued that “because they followed their own law, then automatically that means they respected human rights”.
“It’s a bogus argument, as bad as the pulling figures out of the air computation of the Cambodia Daily’s tax bill. So really, who is spoon feeding who in this situation? It sounds like Cambodia has graduated to new levels of mendacity with help from regional friends,” he said.