Prime Minister Hun Sen on August 16 told UN rapporteur Vitit Muntarbhorn his views on civic space, human rights, democracy and the rule of law, against a backdrop of allegations of Cambodia backsliding in these areas.

Vitit, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, is on an 11-day visit from August 15-26, during which he will meet with government officials and civil society representatives to assess the situation on the ground and the government’s efforts in creating an enabling environment for the full enjoyment of all human rights by Cambodians.

During the meeting, the rapporteur requested that Hun Sen clarify Cambodia’s position as ASEAN chair on promoting human rights, economic justice, democracy and rule of law in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the premier’s social media post, the meeting also touched on the recent commune council elections.

Hun Sen said Cambodia is continuing to implement its social security policy, which has helped the poor and vulnerable during the pandemic with direct cash assistance while also increasing salaries for civil servants and members of the armed forces as well as pensions for veterans.

The government has also been working to increase the minimum wage for factory workers while also undertaking the implementation of pensions – slated to begin in October – for all employees in the private sector under the Cambodian labour law.

“Cambodia had put in place in-depth measures which are thorough and effective in order to support the economic sector and implemented social protections such as the cash transfer programme and … vaccinations for all people, which have reached more than 94 per cent so far, among others,” his post said.

Vitit praised Cambodia for having achieved such a high overall percentage of vaccinations among its population.

Hun Sen also elaborated on the Covid-19 law and related legal provisions, which were promulgated in March, 2021, saying they were all aimed at maintaining national security and public order, and protecting the lives and health of the people.

“The allegation that many legal provisions had been adopted to restrict civil society organisations [CSOs] is not at all based on the truth. All laws and legal standards which have been passed, including those made during the Covid-19 pandemic, adhered to the principles of legality, necessity and proportionality.

“All of them had a single purpose – saving lives and protecting people who respect the law as well as to prevent offences which cause instability, affecting public health and order,” the post said.

With regard to space for CSOs and election issues, Hun Sen said that universally democracy must go hand-in-hand with the rule of law, without which anarchy will ensue.

“In this spirit, Cambodia wants all actors in the democratisation process to act responsibly, make constructive criticisms, avoid incitements and refrain from spreading hatred. They must not sow hatred between Khmer and Khmer as that could lead to civil war.

“The respect of human rights, practice of democracy and protection of peace and stability must complement each other. None should be left behind,” added the post.

Hun Sen also informed Vitit that Cambodia has already organised six national elections since 1993 and five commune council elections. All of the elections were monitored by international observers who evaluated them to be “transparent, free, fair and just”.

“Cambodia is proud of the success of the June 5 commune council elections which were held in a manner that was free, fair, just, neutral, secure, orderly and non-violent,” his post said.

Regarding constructive criticism and avoiding the spread of hatred, Yang Kim Eng, president of the People’s Centre for Development and Peace, said that while he supported Hun Sen’s remarks, he felt that there must be some facilitation by the government on the issues.

He urged the UN special rapporteur and the government to listen to the concerns expressed by each side and work together to improve in those areas accordingly, especially on matters of human rights education, and that the principle of human rights must be enforced in order to avoid discrimination and hatred.

“There should be more awareness-raising about understanding and respecting human rights among civil servants and the general public, to make them understand and uphold the same standard of human rights so we can respect those principles all together, which would solve many of our problems,” he said.

Kin Phea, director of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said that Cambodia and the UN have historically had differing opinions on the subject of human rights in the Kingdom due to a lack of communication and inadequate information sharing.

He said that this was partly due to Cambodia not providing adequate information to the UN, while the international organisation bases their judgments too heavily on overly-critical NGO reports, resulting in dissonance.

“The attitudes of the UN special rapporteurs doesn’t vary much from one to the other. Their ideas differ from the government’s as the two sides do not share common ideas concerning human rights or democracy.

“Both sides are still using different indicators to gauge human rights, democracy and the political situation. They should use the same sort of mechanisms to measure them, but because they use different tools and different systems of measurement, the results will accordingly be different, leaving both sides to argue with each other over every report,” Phea said.