The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation has told visiting UN special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia Vitit Muntarbhorn that the Kingdom “adheres” to the principle of multi-party democracy, in response to concerns he expressed to the UN Human Rights Council about the “regression” of the country’s civic space.

The ministry issued a press statement on March 29 about the meeting four days earlier between its secretary of state Luy David and Vitit. The meeting coincided with the special rapporteur informing the UN Human Rights Council that civic and political space in Cambodia has “receded and regressed”.

In his address to the council, Vitit said the outlook for human rights and democracy in Cambodia remains “disconcerting on many fronts”, especially in the lead-up to the commune elections scheduled for June 5.

He acknowledged that the country has seen improvements in several areas, notably in terms of new draft laws to protect vulnerable people, a reduction in the backlog of court cases and progress towards the establishment of a National Human Rights Institution. But Vitit expressed concern about the Kingdom’s “shrinking of civic and political space, mass trials and imprisonment of political opposition members and unjust decisions” made with regard to the upcoming elections.

“I call on all authorities in Cambodia to respect fundamental human rights and international human rights laws to which the country is a party, including the basic freedoms of expression and assembly,” he said.

In response, David told Vitit that judgment on Cambodia’s civic space, political rights and democracy should be made with “consideration of all aspects”. He brought up Cambodia’s successes in several areas, noting that the Kingdom had emerged from the wreckage of civil war to become one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, averaging seven per cent annually before the pandemic.

“Cambodia adheres to multi-party democracy, with a political field that currently contains 47 parties. Among them, 17 had registered candidates in the commune council elections in June.

“In the spirit to unify the nation, the National Assembly had amended the Law on Political Parties in 2019 to pave the way for the return to politics of people who have been banned per the court order [pertaining to the previous iteration of the law] and who have requested for rehabilitation,” he said, adding that 32 senior members of the Supreme Court-dissolvaed Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) had been rehabilitated.

Last week, Vitit also met virtually with Ministry of Justice officials, Minister of Interior Sar Kheng and Cambodian Human Rights Committee president Keo Remy to discuss the human rights situation in Cambodia.

In September last year, Prime Minister Hun Sen told the special rapporteur that Cambodia wanted to work with him to “build mutual trust” in a “constructive environment” with regards to human rights issues.