A United Nations Special Rapporteur visiting Cambodia yesterday said that human rights defenders faced increased pressure throughout the world, a trend that observers see reflected in Cambodia.
Michel Forst, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said there was “a shrinking of the space of civil society organisations” in many countries in the world.
As he was not on an official visit, he said he could not comment on the situation in Cambodia. However, he argued that there was a worldwide trend to portray defenders as “as enemies of the state”, or as “linked to the opposition” and highlighted that states were “trying to criminalise defenders” by using law as a threat against them.
Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director, said this also applied to Cambodia.
“For human rights defenders, working in Cambodia is increasingly like trying to traverse a legal mine field without a map, because it’s not always clear what actions or speech can actually trigger a prosecution,” he said.
“The real problem is that loosely written laws and politically controlled judges mean that the ruling CPP can have almost anything criminalised according to the whim of PM Hun Sen and other senior government officials.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan countered that allegedly repressive practices served to ensure stability. “Everywhere on earth, the government has an obligation to maintain the rule of law and public order,” he said.
“We never do anything [that] abuses the constitution . . . We don’t make everyone happy, but our people [are] happy with the peace.”
Cambodian Center for Human Rights Executive Director Chak Sopheap disagreed and said the government often ignored the rule of law.
“Time and time again, we see that there is a threshold for criticism . . . Once that threshold is surpassed, international human rights standards and the rule of law to the extent that they were ever respected in the first place go out the window. In their place, trumped up charges and punitive pre-trial detention are the tools of choice to silence critical voices,” she said, citing the example of the prolonged detention of the Adhoc 5, who are in pre-trial detention after being swept up in a case involving opposition leader Kem Sokha’s alleged mistress.
Siphan, however, dismissed all criticism. International organisations such as the UN should “learn from Cambodia” about how to achieve development and stability, he said.
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