Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Local activists seen as new state targets

Local activists seen as new state targets

Local activists seen as new state targets

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A girl wears a sporty cap and a new krama at International Human Rights Day held on December 10 at Olympic Stadium. More than 10,000 people were on hand for a celebration that proclaimed "We are all human rights defenders."

I mmaculately made up and demurely dressed in a traditional Khmer silk blouse and skirt, So Socheat, 23, doesn't look like the kind of woman who would end up spending her nights in a jail cell. But when armed police violently broke up a peaceful protest over a land dispute in her village Wat Bo, in Siem Reap town, Socheat found herself behind bars.

On May 3, 2006, police arrived at her village with electric batons and began attacking unarmed demonstrators to force them to disperse, she said. Three women villagers were so badly beaten they couldn't walk. The police were in the process of arresting them when Socheat, Wat Bo village's representative in their long-running land dispute with the local pagoda, felt impelled to step in.

"I told the police they shouldn't take those injured women, they should take me," she said. "So they hit my knees until I couldn't stand up, and then they handcuffed me and put me between two police officers on a motorbike and drove [me] to prison."

Despite a healthy turnout of over 10,000 people at International Human Rights Day, held December 10 at Olympic Stadium, 2006 has been a bad year for human rights defenders in Cambodia, such as Socheat, said Licadho's December briefing paper.

Unlike 2005, when the banners waved at celebrations for International Human Rights Day sparked a string of arrests of Cambodia's most prominent human rights activists, the relative freedom of this year's celebrations draws attention to the changing pattern of threats and attacks on human rights defenders, the paper reads. The theme of day was "We are all human rights defenders."

"The most serious attacks - such as physical assault or arrest and imprisonment - are increasingly directed against community activists," according to the paper. "Particularly those in remote rural areas and those who do not have formal organization behind them."

This new trend is not unique to Cambodia, said the guest of honor at the 2006 event, Hina Jilani, Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on human rights defenders. It is grassroots activists such as Socheat who are coming off worst all across Asia, Jilani said.

"The biggest problem is at the local level," she told the Post on December 12. "Sometimes the federal or central government will announce their support of human rights but they don't make the necessary administrative decisions to devolve that responsibility to local authorities."

Another negative trend in the relationships between governments across the region and human rights defenders has also emerged in 2006, Jilani said.

"There are subtle ways that governments adopt to discredit human rights defenders and their work," she said. "Rather than imprison them directly it is done by campaigns against human rights defenders."

Theary Seng, director of the Center for Social Development (CSD) confirms that this trend has been felt by human rights defenders and civil society in Cambodia.

"Jilani's general observation of how governments use more subtle ways to discredit human rights defenders illustrates accurately a disturbing trend here in Cambodia," she said. "Our government, in addition to the weapons of selectively using the law and imprisonment against their critics, is now also using indirect means to discredit Cambodian human rights workers and curb our activities."

The problem any government pursuing such campaigns will encounter is that they will not just destroy public faith in human rights defenders, but reduce faith in human rights more broadly. These are thus counterproductive policies that ultimately weaken the state and state institutions and create social tensions and political conflicts, Jilani said.

Such social tensions are already emerging across Asia as a result of governments that deny citizens their social and economic rights being forced subsequently to deny their civil and political rights, Jilani said.

"For example, if you build a dam and displace a large number of people with inadequate or no compensation, and they then protest, [you will often see] the use of excessive force to put down that protest," she said. "This is a denial of freedom of expression."

This helps to illustrate that both categories of rights - social and economic; civil and political - are intertwined and indivisible and there is never any justification to separate them, Jilani said.

"Yet governments try to," she said. "They try to undermine the work of human rights defenders by saying 'People need food before human rights' [but] there is no point in saying that democracy is not as important as food - to strive for the right for food one needs the rights that come with democracy."

Although Jilani was not speaking specifically on the situation in Cambodia, the response taken by Hun Sen to the 2006 celebration of International Human Rights Day illustrated the general type of government behavior to which she referred.

"Can we protest to demand [human rights] when we have no rice to place in pots?" Hun Sen asked in a speech in Svay Rieng province broadcast on national radio on December 12. "We cannot beg for human rights from the sky and mythical spirits."

CSD's Seng said Hun Sen's response helps to illustrate that although the situation for human rights defenders in 2006 has not been marked by the high profile arrests as in 2005, the underlying climate is the same.

"The situation has taken on a slightly different appearance," she said. "There are not outright bans or arrests or imprisonments of human rights defenders, but a more insidious form of intimidation and, at the end of the day, the face of fear is still there."

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