UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith kicked off an official visit to the Kingdom yesterday by raising concerns over ruling party officials’ increased use of violent rhetoric, singling out Social Affairs Minister Vong Soth’s recent threats to bludgeon protesters with bamboo rods, during a meeting with government rights official Keo Remy.
In a press conference following the meeting, however, Remy was quick to defend Soth’s remarks as merely “an education of the law”.
Smith, who is on a 10-day visit of the country, was meeting with Remy at the government’s Cambodian Human Rights Committee offices in Tuol Kork district, when she raised the issue of the bamboo threat – which Soth had attributed to Prime Minister Hun Sen – and told reporters that Remy had said that he was concerned about the rhetoric as well.
“His Excellency raised that himself, yes. I did raise my concerns, and His Excellency did agree that it was problematic and not helpful before the elections,” she said, without commenting further on the issue.
The run-up to the commune elections in June was marked by a major escalation in ruling party rhetoric, with Hun Sen repeatedly warning of a return to war in the event of an opposition victory, and Defence Minister Tea Banh saying he would “smash the teeth” of opposition supporters if they protested the results of the ballot.
The rhetoric was among the chief reasons independent election observers declined to deem the vote completely free and fair.
Soth’s bamboo remark two weeks ago also drew criticism, but Hun Sen appeared to double down on the comments last week, saying that there would be violent backlash from his supporters to any kind of pushback following next year’s national elections.
Hun Sen, who is in Japan on an official visit, took the opportunity to again chastise the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party – albeit in softer terms – for its protests following the 2013 election during a speech to Japanese investors yesterday. The opposition’s peaceful protests – which were ultimately violently dispersed – showed the party had no responsibility, and the CPP had to “take care of the whole situation”, the premier said.
While acknowledging Smith has raised the issue of Soth’s threats, Remy did not express any concern over the statements, and in fact seemed to downplay the minister’s remarks, saying they were only based on past experiences and were in no way a threat to the opposition.
“The most important thing is that this is not a threat. This is just an education of the law, but the words have stirred a reaction from the human rights sector,” he said, adding that Soth was a “gentle” person.
Phil Robertson, of the US-based NGO Human Right Watch, had called for the sacking of Soth for his lack of understanding about human rights or democracy. Robertson was quickly rebuked by Hun Sen, who in a speech told him to keep his US-style “anarchy” away from Cambodia.
Remy yesterday maintained that recent widely condemned amendments to the Law on Political Parties had been drafted for this very reason – to punish any party that failed to recognise next year’s results.
“This is to remind them to know about the law that we already have, and to make them respect the law,” he said.
Remy and Smith also discussed Cambodia’s obligation to send reports on its adherence to human rights conventions to which it is a signatory, which it has long failed to do, though Remy assured Smith the lapse would be rectified.
Additionally, Remy said Smith raised the matter of the controversial Lower Sesan II dam in Stung Treng province – which has displaced families and could threaten fisheries – but did not provide details.
Chak Sopheap, of the NGO Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said yesterday that in light of the worsening rights environment, it was critical for the rapporteur to push the government on “unjustified restrictions on freedom of expression, the constant targeting of the political opposition, the ongoing attacks on civil society, and the harassment of human rights defenders”.
“We urge her to take every opportunity to express her concerns when she meets with the government, and to put the human rights situation in Cambodia at the forefront of the upcoming UN Human Rights Security Council agenda,” she said in an email, referring to a coming meet scheduled for September.