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Failing justice, protests, violence

Failing justice, protests, violence

120423_18

It was reported in last Friday’s edition of The Phnom Penh Post that Chhouk Bandith – the former governor of Bavet town suspected of shooting workers protesting at the Kaoway Sports Ltd factory on  February 20 this year – had been charged with “causing unintentional injuries” (“Shooting ‘unintentional’ ”, April 20).

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Three women were injured in this incident; one of them was shot through the chest, and the bullet narrowly missed her heart.

It has taken more than two months since the shootings for the only suspect in the case to be charged, and no arrest has been made.

Considering the circumstances, the charge seems lenient and the potential prison sentence of six months to two years inadequate.

The slow, insufficient action taken in this case is a reminder of the failure of Cambodia’s law enforcement and justice system, which is contributing to the rising number of protests in the Kingdom and the increasing level of violence being used against protesters.

In an opinion piece published online in the Asia Times on April 5, we described how Cambodia is suffering from a vicious cycle of failing justice, protests and violence.

Unable to rely on the country’s corrupt law enforcement and judicial system, ordinary Cambodians are increasingly turning to protests to defend their rights and interests.

Although the protesters in Bavet were calling for a living wage, many of the other protests relate to land insecurity in this country.

According to the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), there were 256 protests throughout Cambodia last year, compared with 183 in 2010.

Importantly, these protests can achieve resolutions that are rarely secured through the courts.

Powerful private interests are responding with violence against protesters, knowing that the law-enforcement agencies will not properly investigate and the courts will rarely hold them accountable.

The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights (LICADHO) issued a statement in January this year listing five incidents involving private interests in which protesters had been shot, resulting in injuries to 19 people.

In most of these cases, no steps have been taken to bring the perpetrators to justice.

This failure to hold the perpetrators of violence accountable is further weakening ordinary Cambodians’ trust in the law-enforcement and justice system – and so the vicious cycle continues, with more protests and more violence.

In failing to protect protesters from violence and punish perpetrators, the government is breaching its human-rights obligations under international and domestic law.

In a welcome move, the government has condemned the use of violence against protesters.

After the Bavet shootings, Interior Minister Sar Kheng stated that orders to shoot people were reminiscent of the Khmer Rouge regime and that it was the authorities’ responsibility to protect people.

As most of the perpetrators of violence remain free, it may appear that the government is simply paying lip service to Cambodia’s human-rights obligations, while actually being unwilling – or perhaps unable – to control, and hold accountable, politically connected private interests.

But the government will be aware that its failure to stop the vicious cycle of failing justice, protests and violence – and to protect the human rights of ordinary people – is having an impact on its international and domestic standing.

After the Bavet incident, clothing brands – including PUMA, Gap and H&M – demanded a full investigation into the shootings, while Japan’s ambassador to Cambodia called for “safety for investors”.

And the increase in protests is evidence, in and of itself, that questions are also being posed domestically about the government’s will and its capacity to protect the human rights of ordinary Cambodians.

To fulfil its human-rights obligations, the government must urgently follow up its words with actions.

As a start, individuals in the government must not shield the alleged perpetrators of violence from justice.

There must be investigations in cases where violence has been used against protesters, and the courts must give suspected perpetrators a fair trial.

This may help quell the anger of the victims and deter others from using violence in the future.

Ultimately, however, Cambodia’s law-enforcement and justice system must be thoroughly reformed. This would allow ordinary Cambodians to rely on the  courts to protect their rights, and as a forum for settling disputes a fair manner.

And when violence is used against protesters, such reform would help ensure that those responsible are investigated and held accountable.

Should the  government fail to follow up its condemnation with real action, the vicious cycle of failing justice, protests and violence is likely to be maintained.

And, as rights abuses continue, the government will see its standing at home and abroad suffer further.

Rupert Abbott is a researcher on Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam at Amnesty International
John Coughlan is senior researcher at the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights

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