Cambodia’s permanent mission to the United Nations has rebutted international criticism regarding the government’s mounting steps to dissolve the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, claiming the condemnation was based on misinformation and biased.
The National Assembly this week approved amendments to four election laws that would distribute National Assembly seats currently belonging to the CNRP to other minor parties – and its local commune chief seats entirely to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party – should the party be dissolved.
The mission’s statement, published Monday evening, alleges that the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) “fundamentally misinterpreted Cambodia [sic] democracy and human rights”.
In a press release on Thursday, the UN’s special human rights rapporteur for Cambodia, Rhona Smith, slammed the steps initiating the dissolution of the CNRP, a request for which is currently before the Supreme Court.
“For Cambodians to engage in open and serious political debate, the opposition must be allowed to exist and to function without fear or intimidation,” she was quoted.
But Cambodia’s permanent mission to the UN alleged the OHCHR was relying on “insufficient information and politically motivated sources”, and acted against its obligation to respect the sovereignty and domestic jurisdiction of states, as stipulated in a 1993 General Assembly resolution.
While the resolution does remind states to respect other states’ sovereignty, it repeatedly underlines their duty to fulfil human rights.
Asked which politically motivated sources they were referring to, Cambodian Ambassador to the UN Ney Samol said in an email that to “name and to shame is not a recommended policy, nor the practice of the universal human rights mechanism. The same holds true for divulging who [does] what, which is not my philosophy.”
Taking issue with Cambodia’s interpretation of the law, Kingsley Abbott, senior international legal adviser for Southeast Asia at the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), said the protection of human rights was “an expression of State sovereignty, not a violation of it”.
Chak Sopheap, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, agreed, saying the characterisation of criticism as a violation of domestic jurisdiction was “wholly inaccurate”.
“Cambodia has voluntarily signed up to a multitude of international human rights treaties. These treaties are based on universal standards, and not the subjective interpretation of individual governments,” she said in an email. “The UN is a far more reliable and unbiased arbiter of what these rights mean in practice.”
The permanent mission to the UN, meanwhile, also accused the OHCHR of undermining the entire UN human rights mechanism by allegedly only focusing on civil and political rights. “Therefore the OHCHR’s cherry-picking approach blatantly goes against the paramount principles of the Vienna Conference,” they write.
Aside from prescribing all human rights to be on an equal footing, the 1993 Vienna Declaration also sets out that human rights’ “protection and promotion is the first responsibility of Governments”.
CCHR’s Sopheap also rejected the argument that Special Rapporteur Smith had prioritised civil and political rights as “facile and misleading”, adding that Smith had also focused on women’s, children’s and minority rights in her visits.
The Cambodian mission further said Cambodia merely enforced the rule of law, and accused Smith of “drawing peremptory conclusion[s]” in the case of opposition leader Kem Sokha, who has been jailed on charges of “treason”.
Somewhat ironically, multiple senior government officials have repeatedly been criticised by the international body for making statements insisting on Sokha’s guilt, despite the fact that he has yet to be convicted and the only evidence presented against him so far is a 2013 video in which he says he received advice from the US.
ICJ’s Abbot raised concerns about citing the rule of law as justification for actions that impinge on human rights, an argument he said Cambodia increasingly utilised. He highlighted that laws also had to be drafted and applied in a way that respected human rights law.
The CPP-held National Assembly has amended five key political laws – one of them twice – since the start of this year over widespread objections, with government officials at times publicly acknowledging the changes were aimed at the CNRP.
Smith said in an email she stood by her comments. “Removing seats held by a party elected to the National Assembly by Cambodians in 2013 does limit the voice and choice of the electorate, even if those seats are reallocated to other parties,” she said, referring to the latest batch of amendments.
Echoing similar concerns, the US State Department on Monday said the recently passed amendments to the election laws would, if ratified, “effectively disenfranchise the millions of people who voted for the CNRP in the 2013 and 2017 elections”. Suppressing legitimate political activity could, they warn, lead to long-term instability.
The Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights in a press release on Friday also condemned the new amendments, saying recent developments “threaten to cement effective one-party rule into the legal framework”.