INDIGENOUS minority representatives and activists who attended a UN rights hearing in Geneva last week say that the Cambodian delegation failed to address their ongoing concerns, raising fresh questions about the government’s commitment to indigenous land rights.
Only Sun Suon, Cambodia’s ambassador to the UN, was sent to represent the government before the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) on Thursday and Friday, activists said, adding that a more specialised delegation should have been sent from Phnom Penh.
“Whatever was related to the cultural, educational and land issues of indigenous people was far from his competency to answer,” Pen Raingsey, a coordinator for the land and livelihoods programme at the NGO Forum, said at a press conference on Wednesday.
“I noticed that the will of the committee was not satisfied with the answers from the Cambodian representative.”
Khann Channy, an ethnic Phnong villager from Mondulkiri province’s Bousraa commune who attended the meeting, said the government should have sent officials who were responsible for policies affecting indigenous minority populations.
“In Geneva, we raised questions for him about land titling registration for ethnic people, but the ambassador responded that no ethnic minorities face discrimination. The ambassador did not address the real situation of Cambodia, nor did he satisfy our desire for answers,” she said.
Suon Sareth, secretary general of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, said Cambodia’s lacklustre participation in the CERD process showed that the country had “no willingness” to protect human rights in Cambodia.
The CERD hearings centred on concerns about indigenous land rights and the apparent lack of progress on the government’s land-titling programme for indigenous people.
A civil society submission to the CERD noted that traditional indigenous land-management systems were under “severe pressure” from a proliferation of agricultural and mining concessions granted to private companies.
“As a result of the increasing number of concessions allocated, the situation regarding land security of indigenous people has regressed,” the submission stated.
“Even if only a small proportion of these projects go ahead, it could contribute to overall environmental, social and economic instability in the country.”
The submission also stated that although the Kingdom’s 2001 Land Law provides for collective titling of indigenous lands, an enabling sub-decree was not adopted until last year. A framework for the Ministry of Interior’s official recognition of indigenous communities – another prerequisite to obtaining land titles – has also been subject to delays, leaving the recognition of indigenous communities to the discretion of state authorities. “No indigenous community has yet received their collective land title,” the submission said.
Indigenous rights activists said the government had taken the positive step of enacting laws, but that this meant little as long as implementation fell short.
“The concrete recognition of land rights, which is an issue of collective survival of indigenous communities, is not being implemented,” said Joan Carling, secretary general of the Chiang Mai-based Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact.
Chhith Sam Ath, executive director of the NGO Forum, agreed that the process of collective land titling had been “very slow”.
Others said authorities at lower levels work in environments of legal impunity that allows them to all but ignore laws that are already on the books.
“The authorities at the provincial or district level – I’m not sure how well they understand the law. If they do something wrong, they never get punished,” said Sia Phearum, secretariat director of the Housing Rights Task Force. “How can the sub-decree work?”
Vann Samean, an ethnic Suoy villager from Kampong Speu province, said that a 9,985-hectare corn concession granted to the local HLH Group had ballooned out to nearly 30,000 hectares and had eaten into the farmland of five villages. With the company under the protection of the local military, she added, there was little villagers could do to stop the land-clearing that began in June last year.
“Armed forces are the ones who should be protecting people, but they are not. They protect only the company,” she said. “If the company continues to clear our land, our lives will come to an end as well as our ethnic culture.”
Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak on Wednesday waved away criticisms that the government should have sent more officials to Geneva for the CERD hearings, saying Son Suon was tasked with representing the government.
“Our government may have a financial limit for sending officials,” he said.
Khieu Sopheak said that he did not have many details about the progress of land registration for indigenous minorities, but that such groups are treated equally under the law.
“Under Cambodian law, minorities have the same rights as ordinary people,” he said. “We do not discriminate against them. Land-titling registration is the same as with ordinary Cambodian people.”