Cambodia has been named among states accused of using counter-terrorism measures to clamp down on human rights and civil society in a report released this week by the United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism.
Speaking in New York on Monday, the British rapporteur Ben Emmerson warned that countries are increasingly employing security pretexts to stifle opposition and limit NGO activity in what he deemed an “ideological pandemic”.
The annual report noted the significant role of NGO and civil society actors in strategies to counter terror and reduce the appeal of violent extremism by promoting inclusivity and protecting human rights.
However, it concluded that this potential has recently been radically reduced, with more than 60 nations found to have passed or proposed laws in the past three years that curtail such activities.
Cambodia was specifically identified, alongside China, Egypt, Israel, Russia and others, as a government that had “adopted repressive measures permitting mandatory registration or even disbandment of civil society groups on grounds of national security or foreign funding”.
While the government has maintained that its controversial law on associations and NGOs (LANGO) is necessary to prevent civil society organisations from funding terror, UN agencies and human rights groups roundly criticised its potential to curtail organisations’ work and limit democratic participation.
The director of counter-terrorism at the Ministry of Interior, Y Sok Khy, said yesterday that he had not seen the report, and was therefore unable to respond to criticism of Cambodia’s use of anti-terrorism and security measures to restrict civil society.
However, Paul Chambers, a lecturer in international relations at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs, said that anti-terrorism and, more broadly, national security concerns, have long been used in Cambodia to quash voices critical of the ruling party.
“We can view the policy of ‘counter-terror’ and ‘protecting national security’ in the Cambodian state’s use of security forces to stifle domestic opposition and dissent to the CPP, to which security forces are attached, with legal impunity,” Chambers said, citing the use of national security claims as justification for dispersing protestors, jailing opposition parliamentarians and repressing villagers resisting land grabs.
Laws prohibiting “incitement to overthrow the government” have also been used to curtail the activities of activist groups and individuals, including those deemed terrorists like the Khmer People Power Movement, whose leader was tried in absentia in 2014.
“‘National security’ as a premise for the state to call out security forces is today one of the gravest problems in Cambodia, because it excuses the ruling regime’s use of force and human rights violations against Cambodians themselves,” says Chambers.
Among other recommendations, Emmerson’s report urges governments to ensure that counter-terror mechanisms do not target civil society or impede vital humanitarian and human rights engagement, and calls on states to increase the transparency of security legislation.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SEN DAVID