Senior Cambodian officials deplore the findings of UN special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia Vitit Muntarbhorn in his report concluding his recent visit to the Kingdom.
Vitit ended his 11-day mission to Cambodia on August 26 and issued a 10-point list of human rights recommendations while urging Cambodia to work on making improvements to the situation in the country.
In his seven-page report, Vitit said he had visited a “peaceful” demonstration held by laid-off employees of NagaWorld integrated casino resort; met with local officials in Preah Sihanouk province to learn about the situation on cybercrimes and “surreptitious syndication” linked to human trafficking and other forms of exploitation.
The rapporteur noted that he was able to meet with the Kingdom’s top leaders including Prime Minister Hun Sen and Minister of Interior Sar Kheng.
During the visit, he had also met opposition party members and political commentators who had allegedly faced harassment or legal proceedings for their affiliations or political views.
Vitit said while it was true that progress has been made steadily over the years in several areas such as the economy, healthcare, social protection and social security, there were still many issues that remained unresolved in the Kingdom.
“Cambodia is faced with a pervasive paradox. Since 2017, when the main opposition party was disbanded unjustly by a judicial order, the country has effectively been under single-party rule, with all seats of the National Assembly in the hands of that monopoly,” Vitit said.
“[Cambodia] is a country with a bright future, but it faces a number of severe human rights challenges in the lead-up to next year’s general election,” he added.
He urged the government to “expeditiously and effectively” adopt the opening up of civic and political space by suspending and reforming “draconian” laws, ensure that election-related personnel are separated from political parties and end prosecutions of the political opposition and human rights defenders, among other issues.
Chum Sounry, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, expressed his “utter dismay” over the rapporteur’s findings, saying the report made unfounded or biased accusations on a number of issues.
Sounry noted that Vitit had selectively chosen to meet with certain opposition parties while discriminating against many others.
Vitit, he added, met with just a handful of “foreign-funded” and “highly-politicised NGOs” and that his approach was not conducive to a professional and impartial assessment of the facts or the maintenance of trust with all stakeholders.
The spokesman argued that Cambodia elected its leaders in democratic elections, stressing that the voters here chose the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to continue in its role as the ruling party in order to maintain peace, stability and sustainable development, while the opposition called for electoral boycotts and other undemocratic methods to bring about change.
“The people’s choice must be respected by all. The government also created a Supreme Consultative Council to carry out the objective of upholding pluralism. Recently, I’d say that the fact that nine parties won commune council seats through a free and fair election is another testimony to Cambodia’s system of multiparty democracy and pluralism,” he said.
Sounry also complained that Vitit had advocated for changes that were self-contradictory in nature by suggesting that the government enforce various telecoms-related laws in order to identify scammers while “paradoxically” insisting on the repeal of the sub-decree that enables it to do so.
He claimed that Cambodia had already been taking action against scams and fraud crimes, with at least 890 victims rescued and 83 suspects prosecuted in just the past eight months of this year.
He said the human rights of Cambodians were being violated by unfair international scrutiny of the Kingdom over human rights issues. “Namely: Hate speech, slander, disinformation, incitement of xenophobia and provocation to sedition under the guise of freedom of expression, which the special rapporteur astonishingly remains silent on in his report, thereby revealing certain motives,” he said.
Chin Malin, vice-president of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee (CHRC), told The Post that the concerns raised by the special rapporteur were just his personal views, likely based on incomplete information and influenced by his own political tendencies and personal opinions.
Malin said that no country on Earth had an absolutely perfect human rights situation because every nation has its own complex challenges that it must face and for which no totally perfect solutions exist.
“We must consider his recommendations within the context of the actual facts of the situation in our country and with our laws in order to see which viewpoint is reflecting reality – and which one is simply not applicable to the world as it actually is, but is based instead on how we wish it could be,” he said.
Malin said Vitit’s recommendations that Cambodia drop all charges and release various political activists who have been charged with crimes without first determining their guilt or innocence at trial are not reasonable, as this would be in violation of the Constitution, which guarantees the powers of an independent judicial system.
Malin said he also disagreed with Vitit’s claims regarding open space for civil society, stating that Cambodia has always had open space, including space for democratic politics as long as the political parties obey the Kingdom’s laws.
“If civil society organisations [CSOs] carry out activities that are against the law, they must be held responsible according to the law, just the same as it is for individuals,” he said, stressing that there is no one in Cambodia with the privilege to freely violate the laws.
Yong Kim Eng, president of the People’s Centre for Development and Peace, said the government should take Vitit’s recommendations seriously and reflect on ways they could improve in areas where they are not meeting the UN’s human rights standards.
“Review and consider the special rapporteur’s recommendations. That would help improve the human rights situation in Cambodia and the Kingdom would then be credited for promoting democracy and strengthening human rights here,” he said.
Kin Phea, director of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said some of the recommendations by Vitit could be taken into consideration by the government, while others could fairly be judged as unreasonable because they undermine Cambodia’s laws and sovereignty.
“I think the special rapporteur and the government should work together more on these issues, rather than just leaving a list of recommendations. They need to talk more together to find out if there are any significant recommendations that could be implemented in ways that improve human rights and do not interfere with Cambodia’s governance of its own internal affairs,” Phea said.
However, he said that first the government and the special rapporteur – as well as Cambodia’s CSOs – must agree upon a common definition of standards for human rights, because achieving that is necessary to enable them to work together for the cause of improving human rights in the Kingdom.