Cambodia traded shots with the international community in a heated exchange at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Thursday evening, with states condemning the Kingdom’s ongoing crackdown on the political opposition and civil society, and an increasingly agitated Cambodia accusing member states of “slander” and seeking to rig this year’s national election.

The statements were made under agenda Item 10, which was meant to predominantly address capacity building and technical assistance in Cambodia and other countries. But NGOs and states yesterday took the opportunity to focus exclusively on Cambodian human rights concerns, which were also mentioned in the secretary-general’s report under the item.

Kate Gilmore, the UN deputy high commissioner for human rights and the first to speak on Cambodia, kicked off the discussion by calling out a “serious deterioration”.

“There were notable improvements in economic and social rights,” she said. “However, economic, social and cultural rights are indivisible from civil and political rights, and we urge the government to take action to reverse the recent serious deterioration in the status of political rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Permanent Representative of Cambodia to the UN Ney Sam Ol responded by rejecting the criticism and underscoring the importance of economic development, while accusing “some governments” of seeking “regime change through colour revolution”, echoing an oft-repeated ruling party line.

The rejection did little to dampen other participants’ criticisms, however. Gilmore’s concerns were shared by Australia, the EU and France. Canada’s representative said they were “profoundly concerned”, and called on Cambodia to lift the prohibition on the forcibly dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, as well as to unconditionally release its jailed leader, Kem Sokha.

Permanent Representative of Cambodia to the UN Ney Sam Ol (centre) addresses the Human Rights Council in Geneva on Wednesday. Photo supplied

The representative of Sweden called on the council to closely watch Cambodia. “Time is running out for the upcoming parliamentary elections,” she said, referring to the July vote, in which the CNRP was expected to be the only legitimate contender to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

While Japan stressed its continued assistance to Cambodia, its representative indicated they were “paying close attention”, and expressed hope that elections would be “carried out in a manner that reflects the will of Cambodian citizens”.

Support, though in short supply, fell along unsurprising lines, with China – increasingly Cambodia’s patron as it alienates traditional Western partners – expressing its support for the Cambodian government and asking the international community to “abandon politicisation of human rights issues”.

Cambodia also faced strong criticism from NGOs – criticism Sam Ol repeatedly said should not be voiced under Item 10.

The International Commission of Jurists’ Rebecca Horton said the government “continues to misuse the law to clamp down on the political opposition, on civil society and on ordinary individuals under the guise of the ‘rule of law’”.

R Iniyan Ilango, speaking for the Forum-Asia, Front Line Defenders, Freedom House and Civicus, hit out at recent controversial legal amendments, accusing the government of “creating a climate of fear and intimidation” that has escalated in the lead-up to elections.

No sooner than he mentioned the poll, however, was he cut off by Cambodia’s Sam Ol, who admonished him to stick to the topic of technical assistance, with the council’s president concurring and ending Ilango’s remarks prematurely.

Human Rights Watch and the International Federation for Human Rights Leagues joined the chorus of criticism, after which the next speaker, a representative of Human Rights Now, was directly attacked by Sam Ol. “You should not use this [agenda] item to slander a sovereign state,” he interrupted.

As another NGO speaker launched into criticisms, Sam Ol interrupted again, angrily asserting the council is “not the forum to criticise my government”.

In a scene that unfolded like a lesson from an international relations textbook, the American delegate interjected, saying that civil society should be heard, with Australia supporting the call. China promptly spoke up in support of Cambodia, with Norway then interceding on the NGO’s behalf, followed by Venezuela interceding on Cambodia’s.

The NGO delegate was ultimately allowed to finish her statement.

Despite the interruptions, several more NGOs followed in criticising Cambodia’s government.

Responding at the end of the litany of critiques, a visibly upset Sam Ol launched a fusillade against the Kingdom’s critics, accusing them of “aiming to slander the Cambodian government . . . in order to give preference to their selected candidates to win in July”.

He then went on to issue a grim warning: “Therefore, let us make no mistake: being human rights defenders, activists . . . journalists, [it] does not mean they are immune from prosecution.”