As she began an 11-day mission, UN human rights monitor for Cambodia Rhona Smith was told by civil society groups on Monday that the rights space in the Kingdom was still restricted.
However, the spokesperson for the Cambodian Human Rights Committee said such complaints came after legal action had been taken against certain groups and this was not a restriction on freedom.
Rhona Smith, the UN Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia, is to examine the situation in the Kingdom “with respect to the Sustainable Development Goals, looking in particular at non-discrimination and equality, and participation and accountability”.
Her visit to Cambodia is due to conclude next Thursday.
“I arrived in the Kingdom [on Sunday] for my seventh mission to Cambodia, and I’m looking forward to meeting with members of the government, civil society organisations, the diplomatic community and the people of Cambodia,” she wrote on her official Facebook page on Monday.
On her first day, she met with several NGOs at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) in Phnom Penh.
“[On Monday] I will have various briefing sessions with different organisations, which include UN agencies and civil society organisations, ” Smith said via UNHCHR information officer Mahmoud Garga.
Ny Sokha, the head of the human rights and land section at rights group Adhoc, who met Smith on Monday, said civil society groups had informed her of the situation regarding the human rights space in Cambodia, including that for opposition parties.
He said early this year the Ministry of Interior held a forum with civil societies where the government expressed the intention to widen the human rights space.
However, in practice, he said, civil societies still faced restrictions in carrying out their activities.
“Some NGOs faced problems such as surveillance from local authorities in communities where they held meetings. In some places, the authorities carried out surveillance surreptitiously, while in others it was done openly."
“Sometimes the authorities directly asked participants about the meetings or [did so] by phone. We also informed her about the restrictions to the freedom of political parties, particularly an opposition party which, in a recent development, was not allowed to hold a gathering."
“It’s officials were threatened and called in for questioning, and asked to promise not to have a gathering again,” he said.
Other issues, Sokha said, included recent comments made by Minister of Interior Sar Kheng in which he referred to NGOs working in the human rights field as “opposition groups”.
He said Sar Kheng’s words had led to more restrictions on human rights NGOs from local authorities.
Recent land disputes in Preah Vihear and Preah Sihanouk provinces were also raised to Rhona Smith.
Preap Kol, the executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, who also met Smith, said their meeting was intended to exchange information and update the special rapporteur on the current situation regarding democracy, human rights and development.
“I briefed her about some positive progress in certain aspects regarding the environment for NGOs, but also on remaining challenges in the civic space and some concerns about the political situation and the possibility of losing [access to the EU’s Everything But Arms scheme],” he said.
Cambodian Human Rights Committee spokesman Chin Malin said Smith had to collect information from all relevant stakeholders, including the government, NGOs and opposition groups.
“It’s natural for these NGOs to speak like this after we took legal measures against the groups that were aligned with the opposition party."
“They consider the actions as restrictions on freedom and reported it to Ms Smith. But when she meets with the government, we will tell her that legal action is not a restriction on freedom,” Malin said.
In response to this, Adhoc’s Sokha told The Post that “the government should accept the truth in order to find a successful solution to the current situation, which would eventually make them proud”.