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Government hits back at UN human rights officials

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UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith in March upon the start of a 10-day visit to the Kingdom. Pha Lina

Government hits back at UN human rights officials

CAMBODIAN officials have accused two United Nations (UN) human rights experts of interfering in its internal affairs when they commented on the freedom of opinion and expression in the Kingdom and the media code of conduct for the July 29 national elections.

They were criticising comments made by the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Rhona Smith, and the special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Clement Nyaletsossi Voule.

Released on Friday, the UN officials’ press release, under the banner of the UN Human Rights Special Procedures, said among others: The prohibitions on the media in the code raise serious concerns relating to media freedoms.

“These prohibitions use broad and imprecise terminology that could lead to sweeping restrictions on the media that would be incompatible with international standards.”

Cambodian Human Rights Committee spokesperson Kata Orn told The Post on Sunday that the comments of the two contradicted what was expected of human rights officials and in fact, “they are destroying human rights”.

“The practice of human rights should always be in the context of existing laws and national sovereignty. These people need to respect Cambodian laws. Rhona Smith expects Cambodians to eat bread and cheese instead of rice and prahok,” he said, giving a metaphor.

The press release also said: “Journalists have a responsibility to report on many issues in the run-up to an election, in particular controversial issues. Such reporting is an integral part of transparent and responsible media reporting during an election. It helps voters to make informed choices.

“The prohibitions also have a negative impact on the rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly, necessary conditions for public participation in electoral contexts.”

The UN officials said the National Election Committee’s (NEC) prohibitions are similar to those issued before the 2017 commune elections, and concerns relating to them were noted in the last annual report of the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia.

They said leaders of the court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) have called on voters to boycott the election or abstain from voting as a sign of protest.

In response, the NEC chairperson has called for legal action against those calling for the boycott. “The [NEC] chairperson claimed that such calls were affecting public order and national security, and causing confusion leading to the loss of trust in the election. Under Cambodian law, voting is not compulsory.”

To this, Transparency International Cambodia’s executive director, Preap Kol, said in principle, all media outlets shall be permitted to freely publish the people’s views on politics and the elections.

“People have a right to vote. They also have the rights to abstain from voting. Both choices are legal under the Cambodian Constitution and law. By the sample principle appealing for people to vote and appealing for people to be straining from voting shall be both legal and allowed." He wrote via an email yesterday.

Cambodian People’s Party spokesman Sok Eysan noted that the NEC had also previously confirmed that the same media code was in place during the commune elections, “and that there were no issues raised at the time”.

He called the UN officials’ comments “a direct interference in the internal affairs” of Cambodia.

“It is foolish of international human rights officials to make such statements as it violates the independence, sovereignty and laws of other countries. Is such conduct reflective of the UN’s international standards?” he asked.

He said the UN statement created a false narrative on the political situation in Cambodia. “Cambodia needs to practise what is in the best interest of the Kingdom. It does not need to take orders from foreign nationals,” he said.

Meanwhile, former CNRP Deputy President Mu Sochua said freedom of information, speech and expression are among the fundamental principles of free and fair elections.

“The constant threat of arrest for expressing the wrong opinion is considered part of a ‘colour revolution’ or causing social unrest. The current atmosphere makes free and fair elections impossible. Not only do I support the UN experts’ concerns, I call on the international community not to give any legitimacy to the electoral process, including sending observers,” she said.

Post has corrected the paragraphs of Preap Kol's comments because we misunderstood in the editing.

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