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Human rights groups reprove government's benefactors

Human rights groups reprove government's benefactors

The Consultative Group of foreign donors to Cambodia meets on March 2-3. This letter to each member of the CG was made public on February 23.

Dear Consultative Group Member,Recent events have demonstrated that the Government of Cambodia has yet to make a genuine commitment to good governance, human rights, the rule of law, and political pluralism. The arrests and imprisonment of government critics, attempts to weaken and silence civil society and the main opposition party, and the continuing pillaging of Cambodia's land and natural resources all fly in the face of commitments the government has made over many years to the Cambodian people and donors alike.

Economic development, good governance, and respect for the human rights of Cambodia's people are inextricably linked. The failure of the government to live up to its promises and the recent repressive acts raise questions about whether the Cambodian government is an effective development partner.

The Cambodian government is now at a crossroads. It can either take steps to develop institutions and policies that will enhance the welfare of Cambodian's population and protect their fundamental human rights, or it can continue to govern without accountability and with impunity.

Donors have a major role to play in determining Cambodia's future by continuing their assistance to civil society, supporting the decriminalization of freedom of expression, and insisting that the government fully comply with commitments made at the 2004 Consultative Group (CG) meeting to address corruption and misuse of natural resources.

The government's crackdown on the political opposition and civil society has shown how fragile the situation is. The release from prison of people who never should have been arrested and jailed in the first place should not be seen as constituting meaningful progress. To the contrary, the events of the past year have dealt a significant blow to human rights, the rule of law, and political pluralism.

The detentions and subsequent releases of civil society leaders Cheam Channy, Mam Sonando, Kem Sokha, and others - directly on the orders of Prime Minister Hun Sen - have highlighted Cambodia's longstanding lack of an independent judiciary and rule of law. The unpredictability of the government's policies poses an ongoing threat to the ability of individuals and organizations to exercise their basic human rights. Opposition party, trade unions, news media, human rights and other civil society organizations regularly operate in a climate of uncertainty and fear, knowing that they may be jailed at any time in the future should they displease Cambodia's leaders, especially given the decade-old pattern of such attacks.

We welcome the Prime Minister's recent statement in support of decriminalizing defamation. We urge that this specific pledge be promptly put into action, and also that the government respect the broader issues of freedom of expression and assembly, and in particular, citizens' rights to criticize their government's policies.

The drama surrounding the recent arrests and displays of prime ministerial largesse have served to divert attention from a host of pressing issues in Cambodia - including poverty reduction, rampant land grabbing, and endemic corruption - which the government has consistently failed to meaningfully address.

In tandem with greater restrictions on political freedoms, there has been an increase in the misuse of natural resources and other public assets by elite families and crony companies. Over the past year Cambodia has seen a steep rise in land conflicts to the detriment of the rural poor. Several of the most serious center on economic land and industrial concessions controlled by foreign firms and private individuals, and even some senators.

Villagers opposed to concessionaires' activities have been attacked, threatened, arrested, or prohibited from airing grievances in public. Widespread land seizures by officials and powerful families have likewise been accompanied by human rights abuses, including the shooting to death of five villagers in Banteay Meanchey in March last year during a forced eviction. Villagers are now being jailed on charges of destruction of property or defamation when they protest against the loss of their land.

The government has failed to meet its CG commitments to cease allocating economic land concessions and prevent illegal land sales. Donors, meanwhile, have concentrated their land programs on technical and legal reforms that have not addressed corruption, abuse of power, and the conflicts that result.

Violence and intimidation against local activists and NGOs working in the environmental and forestry sector have continued. At the same time, syndicates comprising relatives of senior officials and elite military units continue illegal logging operations with impunity, frequently under the guise of economic land concessions. As with land alienation, forest crime impoverishes the rural population, a high proportion of which depends on forest products as a source of household income.

The government has failed to meet its pledge to cancel illegal concessions, military development zones, and exploitation permits encroaching on forest and protected areas. It has also effectively subverted the official logging ban through its allocation of new 'special coupe' logging permits.

It is critical that Cambodia's international donors remain focused on securing real progress, rather than mere promises, to tackle these and other key issues.

After billions of dollars of donor support over the past 14 years, it is time for a clear and unambiguous signal to be sent to the government. Donors should make it clear that they can no longer accept previously unmet promises.

Thus, we urge that at the forthcoming Consultative Group meeting, donors directly address the following issues:

1. Support for civil society

We urge increased assistance through non-governmental channels to promote human rights, development, the rule of law, counter-corruption, and media freedom. This must be matched by donor and other international agency frankness in public about the current situation in Cambodia.

The international community sends the Cambodian government very mixed signals when development agencies praise government initiatives in the justice field and related sectors, even as the government is using the justice system to jail and repress independent voices. The IMF's December 23 announcement of debt relief, just after the conviction of political opposition leader Sam Rainsy, illustrates this problem. Rosy rhetoric and ill-timed rewards by donors and international financial institutions encourages the government to deny its human rights violations and anti-democratic actions. The CG and development agencies should publicly express the strongest possible concern over threats to civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights by the government.

2. Forthcoming aid

We believe that the negative trends since the last CG meeting, together with the failure of the government to keep the agreements it made in December 2004, must be addressed. Promises made must be kept. Donors must insist that joint monitoring indicators agreed to at the last CG meeting be rolled over where they have not been met, and make it clear that continued assistance will be contingent on meeting these indicators.

Development assistance and budgetary support should be contingent on the government meeting the following conditions:

* Ceasing to harass and threaten civil society activists and opposition party members; withdrawing all outstanding criminal defamation charges; repealing the defamation, libel, disinformation, incitement, and other provisions in the criminal law that criminalize freedom of expression as protected by international law.

* Guaranteeing the rights of individuals and organizations to defend and promote human rights, including the right to peacefully criticize and protest government policies, in accordance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the 1998 United Nations General Assembly Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

* Creating an independent and restructured National Election Committee.

* Liberalizing electronic media ownership rules, including allowing transmitters of private, critical media to be as strong as those of pro-government private stations.

* Complying fully with 2004 CG commitments to address corruption and misuse of natural resources and other state assets. These include public disclosure of information concerning management of land, forests, mineral deposits and fisheries, as well as the location of military development zones. Donors should specify in writing exactly what information must be disclosed. The government must also meet its commitment to cancel concessions and exploitation permits that have been granted illegally.  In addition, the government must pass asset disclosure and anti-corruption laws that meet international standards and appoint an independent, international external auditor for government finances.

Donors should set an appropriate timeframe by which the Cambodian government must meet the conditions listed above or budgetary support to the government will cease and these funds will be reprogrammed to further support humanitarian and development assistance by non-governmental organizations, human rights, fighting corruption, the environment and a free and independent media.

We believe that these measures are necessary. Despite the veneer of political pluralism, Cambodia has been moving for many years now to an increasingly repressive state. The arbitrary arrests and prosecutions since the formation of the coalition government in 2004 highlight that state power is being exercised without accountability or respect for basic rights.

Year after year donors have asked the government for promises and action on good governance, the rule of law, judicial reform, corruption, proper management of natural resources, and year after year the government makes the requested promises - but does little or nothing, or, as in the past year, even reverses hard-won progress on civil society freedoms and political pluralism.

Donors have been providing aid equivalent to roughly half Cambodia's national budget for over a decade. As donors have noted, good governance is directly linked to a country's pace of development. There is little doubt that Cambodia's development continues to be slowed by the country's poor governance.

Now, donors must generate momentum for real reform. Improvements in human rights and related issues must be emphasized, and not marginalized. This will not be easy. Years of lowered standards have allowed for the institutionalization and routinization of repressive and illegal practices, including high- and low-level political violence and petty and massive corruption.

The donors must press upon the government the need to take urgent measures to reverse the deteriorating situation and to adopt measures that will bring about systemic change. If there is to be a chance for a new beginning, friends of Cambodia must take difficult decisions that will help the Cambodian people enjoy basic freedoms and participate in genuine development. We look forward to you taking up this challenge.

Anselmo Lee
Executive Director, FORUM-ASIA
Basil Fernando
Executive Director, Asian Human Rights Commission
Sidiki Kaba
President, International Federation for Human Rights
Patrick Alley
Director, Global Witness
Brad Adams
Asia Director, Human Rights Watch


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