Human Rights Watch, an international organization that monitors human rights
abuses around the globe, has released its annual review of human rights developments
The right to life and dignity: a Montagnard refugee receives food aid in Mondolkiri Province May, 2001 after fleeing Vietnam.
Cambodia's human rights record during 2001 included progress on some issues as well
as several disappointing setbacks. By the end of the year, Cambodia was close to
becoming the first Southeast Asian country to ratify the Rome Statute of the International
Criminal Court (ICC), but the government continued its efforts to dilute the power
of a tribunal to bring the Khmer Rouge to justice.
While NGOs and human rights organizations were able to exercise their rights to freedom
of association, political violence increased. The government risked angering its
long-time ally Vietnam by affording temporary asylum to ethnic minority asylum seekers
from Vietnam, thereby meeting its obligations as a signatory to the 1951 Refugee
Convention. At the same time, provincial Cambodian officials deported more than 100
asylum seekers back to Vietnam, violating the fundamental principle of non-refoulement.
Prison conditions remained poor and torture continued to be used by police and prison
officials with impunity. Social and environmental rights increasingly emerged as
an issue. Hundreds of villagers organized to protect community fisheries, forests,
and other natural resources from abusive exploitation by government agencies or officially
Political violence increased as preparations began for long overdue local elections,
scheduled for February 2002 in Cambodia's 1,600 communes, or subdistricts. In the
elections, existing commune chiefs, mostly appointed by the ruling Cambodian People's
Party (CPP), were to be replaced with popularly elected commune councils. In September,
the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a coalition of eighteen nongovernmental
organizations (NGOs), documented eighty-two cases of political threats and violence
since the beginning of the year, most of them directed at the opposition Sam Rainsy
By the end of the year, at least ten likely commune candidates had been shot dead
and two others wounded. Among these were SRP commune candidate Uch Horn, who was
killed on June 30 in Kompong Speu. He had previously complained to two local human
rights organizations and the U.N. that he had received death threats.
On July 1, Soeung Sem, a commune candidate for the royalist Funcinpec Party, survived
a shooting in Pursat, but Funcinpec candidate Meas Soy was shot and killed on July
17 in Kompong Chhnang. SRP activist Toch Savoeun was shot and killed on August 23
by two unidentified gunmen at his home in Siem Reap.
On November 5 SRP candidate Sam Sophear was beaten to death by five unknown assailants
in Battambang, followed by the fatal shootings of Funcinpec candidate Thon Pally
and SRP candidate Phuong Sophat in Kompong Cham province on November 14. While Cambodian
human rights groups and the Cambodia Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human
Rights (COHCHR) determined that at least six of the killings may have been politically
motivated, local officials primarily attributed the murders to personal disputes.
In August, after a barrage of criticism from donor countries, human rights groups
and the U.N., the government established a Central Security Office comprising representatives
from the interior and defense ministries, national police, military, and the National
Election Commission (NEC), to address electoral violence. By year's end, the office
was still inactive.
There were reports of vote buying as early as August. The Committee for Free and
Fair Elections (Comfrel) reported that CPP activists in Takeo and Banteay Meanchey
provinces were promising gifts to voters in exchange for pledges of loyalty to the
CPP. In September, Comfrel reported widespread confiscation of voter registration
cards by CPP officials and accused the CPP of pressuring people in many provinces
to sign documents pledging to vote for the CPP.
Local authorities and in some cases uniformed police officers carried out voter opinion
surveys on behalf of the CPP, distributing forms with lists of names and photographs
of possible candidates. Election monitoring NGOs charged that this was in violation
of the Commune Election Law, which calls for government institutions to be politically
The Judiciary and steps toward a KR tribunal
Progress toward establishing a tribunal to bring former members of the Khmer Rouge
to justice was slow. In July 2000, the government had agreed on legislation with
the U.N. that would establish a "mixed tribunal" presided over by both
Cambodian and international judges and co-prosecutors.
However, the legislation sent to the Cambodian National Assembly in January 2001
differed markedly from what had been agreed on, most notably deleting the provision
that prior amnesties would not be a bar to prosecution. This had been designed to
ensure that key people, such as former Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, granted
a royal pardon in 1996, could still be brought to justice.
The U.N.'s Office of Legal Affairs sent a strongly worded letter to the Cambodian
government in January 2001, calling for clarifications or changes to seventeen of
the forty-eight articles in the draft law. In June, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan
stressed that the Cambodian law should accord with the previous agreements, but Prime
Minister Hun Sen's response was that Cambodia would conduct its own tribunal if the
U.N. refused to participate.
In August, the National Assembly passed the tribunal legislation as proposed by the
government. By year's end, the U.N. had still to agree and sign a Memorandum of Understanding
with the Cambodian government, one of the final steps towards actually establishing
It was clear, however, that former members of the Khmer Rouge were becoming apprehensive.
In August, the Democratic National Union Movement (DNUM), a group loyal to Ieng Sary,
urged the government not to prosecute their leader, and former Khmer Rouge leader
Khieu Samphan issued a seven-page public letter in which he offered an unusual apology
to the Cambodian people.
Cambodia's judicial system remained weak and far from independent, with numerous
court decisions influenced by corruption or apparent political influence. The high-profile
trials in June and October of sixty alleged members of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters
(CFF) fell short of international standards for fairness. Most of the defendants
were arrested without warrants and had little or no access to their lawyers while
in pre-trial detention, which exceeded the legal limit of six months.
After the first day of the trial of the first thirty-two defendants in June, most
of the lawyers for the accused boycotted the proceedings, citing breaches of proper
procedures. Five lawyers subsequently received anonymous threats of violence against
them if they did not return to the courtroom. The judge appointed two new lawyers
to act for all of the accused, and refused to delay the hearing, leaving these lawyers
with no opportunity to meet their clients or prepare an adequate defense. On June
22, all but two of the first group of accused were convicted of terrorism and membership
in an illegal armed group, and given sentences ranging from three years to life in
prison. Another twenty-six defendants were convicted in the October trial.
In September 2001, more than fifty additional CFF suspects were arrested in the
provinces and Phnom Penh. Human rights groups expressed concerns that the government's
response to the CFF's November 2000 attack in Phnom Penh could be used as a pretext
to intimidate opposition party members, particularly as the commune election campaign
began to get underway.
Several political killings resulted in trials. On March 15, the Kampot provincial
court found commune chief Im Nan, a CPP member, and three accomplices guilty of the
murder of Funcinpec commune candidate Pak Choeun in June 2000. On October 12, a former
soldier, Sang Rin, and another accused were convicted of the murder of SRP member
Uch Horn at a trial in the Kompong Speu provincial court. In both cases rights groups
held that the murders were politically motivated; the courts, however, attributed
both murders to retaliation for the victims' alleged use of "black magic."
Beginning in March, a slow but steady stream of refugees from Vietnam entered Cambodia's
eastern Mondolkiri and Ratanakiri provinces. They were indigenous minority people
from Vietnam's Central Highlands, known collectively as Montagnards, who were displaced
by a Vietnamese government crackdown in February.
On March 23, Cambodian police arrested twenty-four Montagnards in Mondolkiri and
took them to the municipal Gendarmerie headquarters in Phnom Penh, where they detained
them for several weeks. Prime Minister Hun Sen initially threatened to deport the
group, saying he did not want Cambodia to become a haven for other countries' political
opponents. After considerable international pressure, Cambodia agreed to allow United
Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representatives to interview the Montagnards
on March 31, and by April, 38 Mon-tagnards were resettled in the United States.
In the following months, more than 1,200 Montagnards crossed the border to Cambodia.
Provincial officials forcibly returned several hundred back to Vietnam and in May
attempted to arrest and deport several refugees under UNHCR protection. After negotiations
between UNHCR and the government, and pressure from several foreign embassies, Cambodia
agreed to provide temporary asylum to Montagnards fleeing Vietnam at two sites operated
by UNHCR. By the end of the year, the number of Montagnard asylum seekers in Cambodia
had swelled to more than 1,000.
Freedom of Association and expression
Unlike in neighboring Laos and Vietnam, recent years have seen the development of
a thriving civil society in Cambodia and the emergence of hundreds of local NGOs.
The government generally does not obstruct public meetings. In June, however, the
Council of Ministers banned a public forum on the country's border disputes, organized
by the Students Movement for Democracy, on grounds that it could confuse the public
by raising disagreements with the government's National Committee on Border Disputes.
For the most part, rallies and demonstrations were allowed, although demonstrators
were sometimes dispersed by police or by counter-demonstrators organized by the government.
As in previous years, hundreds of farmers from the countryside periodically gathered
in front of the National Assembly to demand resolution of land or fishing conflicts
or appeal for flood and food relief.
In February, scuffles broke out in Siem Reap at the SRP's annual congress, when counter-demonstrators
were trucked in to disrupt the proceedings. Police used water cannons to disperse
a Buddhist ceremony organized to mark the end of the SRP's congress, reportedly because
the SRP lacked proper authorization to hold the ceremony.
In May, more than 700 market vendors in Siem Reap demonstrated against a provincial
decision to evict them from the provincial market and construct a new market where
vendors would be charged higher rents. Cambodian human rights groups urged the provincial
authorities to organize a public forum to resolve the dispute. Instead, on July 9
police and soldiers surrounded the market, firing in the air and forcibly removed
the vendors, at least fourteen of whom were beaten, handcuffed and temporarily detained
by provincial military police. Several SRP parliamentarians observing the process
were also assaulted. In August, Hun Sen supported a proposal for negotiations to
resume between the vendors and representatives of the market developers.
Cambodian television stations were still owned fully or partly by the government,
which continued to deny a broadcast license to the opposition SRP on the grounds
that no frequencies were available. In February, Sam Rainsy announced plans to start
broadcasting a one-hour radio program from an un-named Asian country.
Protesters get their messages across in Phnom Penh on Workers' Day, May 1, 2001.
The only independent radio station to broadcast during the year, Sambok Kmum (Beehive),
went out of business temporarily in November until it was able to raise more operating
funds. The NEC's media monitoring subcommittee primarily focused on the political
content of voter education materials produced by election NGOs, rather than the denial
of access to the airwaves by opposition parties during the election campaign. NGO
leaders were occasionally featured on radio and television programs to discuss social
More than two dozen privately owned newspapers were published, including some affiliated
with opposition groups. Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong sued three journalists from
the English-language Cambodia Daily for defamation after they published an article
in January that examined his alleged role in the Khmer Rouge regime. In September,
the Phnom Penh municipal court ordered the journalists to pay US$6,500 in compensation
to Hor Nam Hong and a $1,280 fine to the government. Both sides appealed the decision.
In August, the Ministry of Information banned a Khmer-language book written by Sam
Rainsy entitled "Light of Justice," saying that it made false allegations
about the government. In response, Rainsy filed a complaint against the banning in
the Phnom Penh municipal court in September.
The Ministry of Information revived a media subdecree, in the works since 1996. It
included provisions for the licensing of newspapers and defined vague terms used
in the 1994 Press Law, including national security and political stability. As a
result of pressure from journalist associations and human rights groups, several
provisions were dropped from the original draft subdecree, including requirements
that publishers certify that they have 2.5 million riel (about U.S. $640) in the
bank and health certificates showing they have no mental problems.
Freedom of expression came under threat in September, when the Ministry of Cults
and Religion issued a decision forbidding political discussions in the country's
mosques following the September 11 attacks in the United States as well as a controversial
leadership split in a mosque near Phnom Penh. In October, Hun Sen reversed the Ministry's
Prison conditions continued to be poor, with many facilities seriously overcrowded
and lacking adequate medical care, food, and water. At least six prisoners died within
a two-month period in Prey Sar prison in Phnom Penh because of insufficient food
and medication, according to a report by a Cambodian human rights organization. The
use of shackles was reported in prisons in Kompong Som and Kompong Cham. Pre-trial
detention beyond the legal limit of six months was common.
Torture continued to be used with impunity, particularly by police officers attempting
to extract confessions from suspects in custody. Police also failed to intervene
to stop violence against women either in the home, where domestic abuse was considered
a family matter, or in the sex industry, which is often supported and protected by
members of the military, police or other government officials.
In an unusual development, several rare convictions for child abuse were made in
Phnom Penh Municipal Court. These included the convictions of two adults in June
for the almost daily torture of a three-year-old child in their care. The adults,
who had beaten, kicked, and thrown the child to the ground, were given the minimum
sentence of four months in prison.
Social and environmental rights
Cambodian human rights organizations increasingly gave attention to social and environmental
rights. Villagers filed complaints protesting the confiscation by military officers
and local officials of natural resources that rural communities depend on for their
livelihoods - such as bamboo, tree resin, and rattan. They also protested the government's
granting of concessions to exploit such resources.
Environmental and human rights advocates worked to draft a Community Forest Subdecree
that would protect community user rights to forests that villagers rely upon for
collection of forest products. In April, the Department of Forestry issued an instruction
calling for the temporary suspension, in all forest concessions, of cutting of all
trees from which people collect resin. At the end of the year Hun Sen announced the
suspension of all logging operations, effective from January 1, 2002.
Positive steps were taken during the year to protect community fisheries, on which
a huge percentage of Cambodians depend. In late 2000 Hun Sen announced that fishing
lots would be taken away from large concessionaires and returned to local people.
He subsequently dismissed the director of the Department of Fisheries for not implementing
The department involved local communities in developing legislation to protect community
fisheries, setting a positive precedent for local participation in natural resource
management. Despite these efforts, poor implementation of policies at the local level,
reflected in the confiscation of community fishing lots by fishery department officials,
continued to pose a problem in some areas.
Land conflicts also remained a major issue throughout the country. Legal Aid of Cambodia
(LAC), a local NGO, reported that its land-related caseload involved 7,000 families,
or 35,000 people, with the vast majority of the conflicts involving military commanders
or provincial and local officials.
In one high-profile case, indigenous minority villagers in Ratanakiri province filed
a lawsuit seeking to protect their rights to 1,250 hectares of village land that
they said had been fraudulently obtained by a representative of a military general.
Villagers were given bags of salt and promises of development in return for their
thumbprints on documents that - without their knowledge - transferred ownership of
their ancestral lands to the general.
In a decision in March, the Ratanakiri provincial court ruled against the villagers'
civil complaint. With the help of LAC the villagers then took the case to the Appeals
Court in Phnom Penh, but it had not been heard by year's end. In July, the National
Assembly passed a new land law, drafted with the input of NGOs and local communities,
designed to stem the widespread practice of land grabbing.
Defending human rights
Several dozen Cambodian human rights organizations were active throughout the country
investigating violations, monitoring prison conditions, observing trials, and conducting
human rights education. In addition, three large NGOs specializing in election observation
monitored voter registration and the commune election process.
Overall, the atmosphere for NGOs was less threatening than in previous years, although
several times during the year public officials issued strongly worded warnings to
NGOs. In the months following the November 2000 CFF attack in Phnom Penh, human rights
groups and their leaders came under strong criticism from officials when the groups
called for due process to be followed in the arrests and trial of alleged CFF members.
In several speeches Prime Minister Hun Sen charged that NGOs were hiding terrorists
"under their logos" and threatened them with arrest.
Global Witness, which has served as an independent monitor within the government's
Forest Crime Monitoring and Reporting project since 1999, came under fire in January
when it released a report critical of illegal logging and resource rights abuses
just prior to an international donor meeting.
Government officials said Global Witness should have given them the opportunity to
review and comment on the report before it was publicized. Prime Minister Hun Sen
threatened to expel the group from Cambodia but relented after pressure from donors.
In June, Global Witness signed an agreement with the government on new reporting
procedures shortly before the annual donor meeting.
In July, Hun Sen criticized the Human Rights Action Committee for its statements
deploring the rise in political violence. He said the burden of proof was on the
NGOs to show that the killings of commune candidates were politically motivated.
In October, the acting director of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense
of Human Rights (Licadho), a local human rights group, faced criminal charges when
a court accepted a complaint by the adoptive parents of a seven-year-old girl whom
Licadho was sheltering.
Licadho previously had sought child abuse charges against the adoptive parents and
had been granted temporarily lawful custody of the child. Cambodian and international
rights groups expressed concern that the initiation of criminal proceedings appeared
to be without foundation and to be aimed at intimidating Licadho. By late December
the case was still pending.