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Cambodia as Yash Ghai sees it: NGO leaders comment

Cambodia as Yash Ghai sees it: NGO leaders comment

The government says Cambodia's Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Yash Ghai's recent report is inaccurate. His assessment, they say, is warped by his hatred of Cambodia. How accurate is Ghai's assessment? Cat Barton asked key figures in local and international civil society for their comments on assertions in the controversial report.

* "Human rights continued to be violated on a systemic scale [in Cambodia] because the deliberate rejection of the concept of a state governed by the rule of law had been central to the ruling party's hold on power." - Yash Ghai

Basil Fernando, Director, Asian Human Rights Foundation: Absolutely. There has been no attempt at all to begin a government on the basis of rule of law and there have been very deliberate attempts [by the] people in power to keep power for their own benefits. When a government sabotages the development of the rule of law through violence and suppression, how can you say anything other than that this is a deliberate attempt not to come to the path of the rule of law?

Kek Galabru, President Licadho: Yes, it is not a lack of awareness. The political platform of the Cambodian government is an excellent political platform; if you read it you would think that Cambodia had no more problems. But there is no political will to implement it. What do I mean by a lack of political will? The same thing Yash Ghai said: there has been a deliberate rejection of these principles. They use the law for their own purposes.

* "The Cambodian Constitution has been massively disregarded and its safeguards weakened." - Ghai

Theary Sing, Director, Centre for Social Development (CSD): In Cambodia the government is very practiced in giving lip service but has yet to convince civil society and the Cambodian people that it is serious in respecting and implementing the basic principles of democracy, especially in holding supreme the Constitution over personality.

Fernando: It is not that they are disregarded, there are none at all. It remains the law of the jungle, and it has not moved one step forward, not a single step forward, since 1993 - it has moved many steps backwards in fact. The test of a constitution is that it creates a legitimate place to voice complaints and have them heard in a reasonable way - that is minimum and even that does not exist in Cambodia.

* "There is a pattern to the current enforcement of the law in Cambodia which suggests that the law is abused for political purposes."- Ghai

Galabru: Why adopt the recent Law on the Statute of Parliamentarians? This law will be used to silence opposition. They manipulate laws to silence their critics.

Fernando: This is a style of rule - where you use the law only to the extent that the powerful can continue to assert their power. If anyone talks too much you say there is a law of defamation and arrest them. There is a complete abuse of the process of arrest, detention and fair trial. If you wish to have someone in jail then you have them arrested; if you work out a political compromise then you release them. This is a rudimentary system of governance - absolute power is used ruthlessly.

Seng: It is an open secret that the law has been used selectively by the powers-that-be; every Cambodian knows and fears this. In this regard, I am reminded of the quip, "For my friends, whatever they want. For my enemies, the law."

Kem Sokha, President, Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR): In democratic countries the legislative body has a long term plan - what laws they want to pass and why. In Cambodia we have constant knee-jerk legislation. The government pushes through the legislation that they want to, they pass they laws they need - for example to ensure they obtain membership to the WTO. Sometimes, if the international community puts pressure on them they will pass certain laws - but not if they don't see the benefit for themselves.

* "[The government's policies have] manipulated democratic processes, undermined legitimate political opposition, and used the state for the accumulation of private wealth."- Ghai

Sokha: Some [members of the government] use subdecrees to give state land to private companies. They use their power and authority to enrich themselves. But we must remember that some do not.

Fernando: The government has absolute power; corruption is thus automatic. Absolute power means corruption; it means you can do things for your benefit unlimited by law.

Galabru: Yes, look at all the land swaps - they build new police stations and prisons cheaply outside town and then sell the city center land for millions of dollars.

* "The application of the criminal defamation law to the speech made in parliament had reduced the status of the parliamentarians to ordinary citizens."- Ghai

Sokha: This law was an initiative from the National Assembly itself - it was in their interests as many articles of the law gave them benefits and just one limited their freedom of speech. They passed it because they were thinking of their retirement benefits. MPs care too much for short term interests - they forget about important interests. Immunity not money should be the first benefit they think of - if the government arrests them and puts them in prison how will they spend their money then? What good will it do them?

Galabru: The National Assembly didn't have power before, but at least in theory they could talk. But now with this new article if they talk too much and they abuse the personal dignity of a minister they will have to suffer the consequences. Up to this point it has been NGOs and civil society who were really at risk [due to the] shrinking of the space for expression. Now who can really talk about these issues? Parliamentarians? Due to Article 5 [of the new law] they will have the same problems as civil society - before the government had to lift their parliamentary immunity to prosecute them, now they don't have to.

Seng: One of the fundamental principles of democracy is the independence and protection of the legislators to hold open and passionate debates in their course of their business. Fear of prosecution will certainly stifle ideas and diminish the quality of legislating.

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