The Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of Cambodia to the UN Office in Geneva denounced the statements by Professor Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights, regarding the trial of the activists from Mother Nature Cambodia (MNC).

On May 5, three MNC members – Long Kunthea, Phuon Keoraksmey and Thun Ratha – were sentenced to between 18 and 20 months in prison and fined four million riel by the Phnom Penh Municipal court on charges of incitement related to environmental issues.

Two days after the trial, Lawlor issued a statement saying the activists had been imprisoned since September 2020 for attempting to protect Boeung Tamok Lake on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

"I am saddened to learn that three human rights defenders from MNC have been sentenced to 18 to 20 months in prison. Protecting the environment peacefully is not a crime," she said.

Cambodia’s permanent mission to the UN said Lawlor's statement was false and misleading.

“Crime is crime and it cannot be justified because it is in pursuit of other aspirations,” the press release said.

The permanent mission’s statement said that Cambodia values all duly-registered NGOs that are operating within the boundaries of law and that, unfortunately, Professor Lawlor seems to be advocating the work of an unlawful organization that commits crimes in the name of environmentalism.

The mission said MNC had officially dissolved itself in 2017, but the organisation continued on illegally exploiting the environmental movement until today and that the self-proclaimed human rights defenders are not entitled to break the law with impunity.

It said Lawlor did not seem to recognise that the exercise of freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly carries with it special duties, responsibilities and limitations, as stipulated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Her failure to recognise that rights come with responsibilities, it added, emboldens those who break the law, spread fake news and incite violence and social division – all of which could potentially plunge Cambodia into chaos.

The Cambodian court conducted the MNC trial in a manner that gave due process to the defendants and convicted them with concrete evidence, not by hearsay. The fact is that – in addition to the defendant’s defence lawyers – representatives from the foreign diplomatic corps and civil society organisations were physically present in the courtroom and can attest to it being a fair and transparent judicial proceeding, the mission said.

It described Lawlor’s remarks as inappropriate and an interference in the national judicial system of a sovereign state, saying the demand for the government to arbitrarily release anyone is tantamount to an attack on the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary that are guaranteed under the Constitution.

UN special rapporteurs are supposed to strictly adhere to the “Code of Conduct” and “Manual of Operations of the Special Procedure Mandate Holders”, which underline the importance of establishing facts which are duly cross-checked and understanding national legislation and the UN Charter, it said.

“Only a cautious approach characterised by due diligence to these protocols will enable states in general and Cambodia in particular to maintain their trust and cooperation with this mechanism,” it said.

Cambodia reaffirmed the government’s steadfast commitment to continue to ensure the free exercise of all rights and freedoms guaranteed under the Constitution and within the rule of law in the best interests of all law-abiding citizens, not any particular group, the permanent said.