The government hit back this week after the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Rhona Smith criticised the Cambodian government’s prioritising of “peace, stability and development over human rights”.
“Peace without justice is unsustainable; development without freedom leaves people behind,” Rhona Smith had said in a report submitted to the 39th regular session of the UN Human Rights Council on the situation in Cambodia.
The government countered that the Special Rapporteur had overlooked the improvements in election reform and that she had based her long report on the “one-sided narrative version of opposition groups”.
The first 19-page document, submitted on August 15, covers the period in the Kingdom between June 2017 and June this year.
In this report, Smith says there were welcome developments in the areas of economic and social rights, social protection, minimum wage and maternity leave. But she says there has been “regression in the area of political rights and enjoyment of fundamental freedoms”.
The report raises the case of the dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and the ban of its 118 politicians, the imprisonment of former CNRP president Kem Sokha on treason charges, the reallocation of the CNRP’s seats in the now all- Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) National Assembly and the passing of the lèse majesté law, among numerous others.
“For economic development to be sustainable, the indivisibility of rights dictates that respect for civil and political rights should accompany improvements in economic and social rights,” the report said.
The report said to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), economic development alone wouldn’t be enough.
The protection of human rights, which is a prerequisite of the SDGs, was needed, as was the maintaining of peace.
The government responded by saying that the national elections of 2018 “reflected a prevailing stable and functioning democratic process in Cambodia”.
“No one can dispute the will of the overwhelming majority of registered voters who went to the ballot to freely express their choice. This choice calls for the respect of all, including for foreigners,” the report said, basing its claims on the 83 per cent election turnout.
The Cambodian government said the ruling Cambodia People’s Party has been the Kingdom’s most popular since 1998, in a manner akin to the Christian Democratic Union of Germany and Christian Social Union in Bavaria in German politics, or the People’s Action Party in Singapore.
The one-year report leaves a 21-point recommendation for judicial sector reform, the release of all detainees arrested without sufficient evidence or due to their political affiliation, the removal of the ban on the 118 Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) members, the restoration of the seats of CNRP commune officials and the minimising of pre-trial detention, among others.
While the first report covers many aspects of human rights, a second report, submitted on September 7, focuses particularly on the commune elections of last year, and the national elections of July 29.
The 22-page report ends with the conclusion that Cambodian elections until this year had been improving according to international human rights standards, but this year, such improvements stalled and the questions remained as to whether the July 29 national polls were indeed genuine.
“The Special Rapporteur strongly encourages the expansion of the democratic space so that civil society organisations, human rights defenders and political activists, including members of the former CNRP, can actively and openly participate in an inclusive political debate,” the report recommends.
The government’s response said that, as of August 31, 23 Cambodian politicians, analysts, land activists, and journalists were released, including Kim Sok, Tep Vanny, two Radio Free Asia journalists and Khmer Power Party founder Suorn Serey Ratha, opposition lawmaker Um Sam An, and Meach Sovannara and 13 other CNRP members.
‘Provoking racial hatred’
The releases were based on three things, it said, the completion of a prison term, a pardon or court discretion.
The government response said the dissolution of the CNRP, the reallocation of its seats and the banning of 118 CNRP politicians were all done according to Cambodian law.
The Cambodian government said Smith should “urge opposition parties to respect the Constitution and Cambodian law and behave as the ‘loyal opposition’ that respects civilised and democratic practices”.
“They should not drive political support through provoking racial hatred, defamation, incitement and subversive deeds, which in turn, bring about the destruction to the country,” it said.