The Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of Cambodia to the UN Office in Geneva has rejected claims by a UN special rapporteur on human rights that the government had used hard-handed measures against human rights defenders in the country.

In a November 16 press release, Mary Lawlor – a special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders – alleged that the government had placed restrictions on civil society in Cambodia. She called for an immediate end to the “systemic detention and criminalisation” of human rights defenders as well as the excessive use of force against them.

“I am alarmed by credible reports that at least 21 human rights defenders have been subjected to threats, arbitrary arrests and detentions in the past three months.

“I have reviewed publicly available footage where excessive force has been used by the security forces to prohibit human rights defenders, many of them women, from exercising their rights to peaceful assembly. Promotion and protection of human rights through peaceful means is not a crime,” she added.

Lawlor referred to several cases in which detention has reportedly been used to punish human rights defenders for carrying out their work.

One such case, she said, is the detention of human rights defender Rong Chhun, who was arrested on July 31, and the arrest of demonstrators protesting Chun’s detention. Twelve people remain in pre-trial detention and are facing charges punishable by up to two years in prison.

Lawlor also expressed concerns about the detention of environmental defenders, the use of violence against families of detained activists, and the case of a Buddhist monk who was defrocked for his human rights activities.

Two human rights defenders monitoring a demonstration were threatened for filming the arrest of peaceful protesters and several trade union leaders have suffered as well, she said.

“Human rights defenders should never be criminalised for their courageous efforts to protect the rights of others,” said Lawlor.

In response, the Cambodian mission to the UN said Lawlor’s criticisms failed to take into consideration the actions taken by activists in the context of the Cambodian Constitution and laws. It said Lawlor also did not follow internationally recognised protocol when levying her accusations.

The mission said an assessment on one country is deemed credible only when it is properly informed by the factual and legal context on the ground, with verified sources of information and a holistic perspective. This approach is in adherence to the Code of Conduct for Special Procedures Mandate Holders and the Manual of Operations of the Special Procedures.

“It’s with deep regret that Professor Lawlor failed to strictly observe these procedures,” the mission said.

It added Lawlor had never stressed that the exercise of the freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly carries with it special duties, responsibilities and limitations provided by laws, as stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“Lastly, it appears she is not fully advised that exercise of personal rights and freedom by any individual shall be in accordance with the law as underscored in Article 31 of the Cambodian Constitution.

“Peaceful assembly in cooperation with the authorities and in full compliance with security and safety measures is a constitutional and legitimate exercise of individual freedom. Seeking to pressure the judiciary is an offence, which is enumerated in Article 522 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code,” it said.

The mission stressed that the Cambodian government remained committed to continuing to ensure the exercise of all rights and freedoms guaranteed under the Constitution and within the rule of law for the best interests of all law-abiding citizens.

Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin said Lawlor’s statement was not sufficient and comprehensive to conclude and assess the situation of human rights defenders in Cambodia.

He said this conclusion focused on external images only and did not analyse whether the activities of those groups were meant to protect human rights or criminal offences.

Malin said the authorities did not target human rights defenders but only took legal action against perpetrators based on the principles of democracy and the rule of law. The gathering to demand the release of the detainees was not a human rights act but a violation of the law, he said.

“The government encourages citizens to participate in protecting, respecting and promoting human rights in all areas within the legal framework for the benefit of the nation as a whole.

“But Strict legal measures will be taken against groups that have malicious plans and intentions to cause unrest and insecurity in society under the guise of human rights to protect the rights and freedoms of others and to maintain security, social stability and public order,” he said.