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UN releases memos on concerns

UN Rapporteur Rhona Smith speaks to the press in August last year. She was one of several UN rapporteurs to correspond with the government about rights concerns since June.
UN Rapporteur Rhona Smith speaks to the press in August last year. She was one of several UN rapporteurs to correspond with the government about rights concerns since June. Heng Chivoan

UN releases memos on concerns

The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Monday published a batch of communications held with the Cambodian government since June last year, showing that the international body has voiced its concern about a range of issues from the arrest of former CNRP leader Kem Sokha to the displacement of residents near the Lower Sesan II dam.

On September 8, Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith raised doubts about the legality of opposition leader Kem Sokha’s arrest five days prior, which “appear[s] in contradiction with his rights to liberty and security of the person and rights to fair trial”, she wrote.

Just two days before, Smith and David Kaye, special rapporteur on freedom of expression, asked for an explanation for the massive tax bill levied on the Cambodia Daily, and the legal basis for revoking the broadcast licences of a range of radio stations.

The Cambodia Daily closed when it was presented with a $6.3 million tax bill in August last year.

More than a month and a half later, on October 30, Cambodia’s Permanent Mission to the UN replied, claiming that the newspaper’s management had not cooperated with the Tax Department’s procedures.

“[The General Department of Taxation] made several phone calls to their offices followed by sending a number of invitation letters inviting them to come to GDT’s office to initiate the discussion of their non-tax compliance to resolve their tax obligations – all of which were deliberately ignored by The Cambodia Daily,” they write.

Several special rapporteurs on June 1 expressed “serious concerns” over the imprisonment of the “Adhoc 5”, as well as rights activist Tep Vanny’s detention.

That same month, the “Adhoc 5” – four employees of the local rights NGO and an election official – were released on bail.

Mother Nature activists Doeum Kundy and Hun Vannak, who were arrested for documenting ships transporting sand in Koh Kong, were also a matter of concern, appearing in an October 6 communication.

They have since been handed a partially suspended sentence, and were released earlier this month.

Meanwhile, a July communication expresses “serious concern as to how [the Lower Sesan Dam II] project is being undertaken”.

Hundreds of families had to abandon their homes to make way for the hydropower project.

In its response in September, the mission argues that the dam serves all “Khmer people”, including affected indigenous minority groups.

“[We] have Khmer flesh and blood . . . No other races would love Khmer more than our own Khmer people,” they write. “[Therefore], all hydropower plant projects have taken full and clear considerations and impacts on all aspects.”

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said these communications were “very important” for the historical record.

“[They] are authoritative expressions of concern from UN senior experts about particular human rights violations, and these serve as building blocks for further action by the UN Human Rights Council,” he said.

“[They] also boost the morale of persecuted human rights defenders and groups, letting them know they are not alone because influential persons are defending their rights and acting to help,” he said.

But Phay Siphan, Council of Ministers spokesperson, said Cambodia’s hands were bound by its own rule of law. “We understand that they raise their concern, but we have to respect the law,” he said. “Stability is the most important [factor]. How can we change the law?”

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