Standing with civil society in Cambodia

People protest at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court earlier this month after members of civil society were detained and charged.
People protest at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court earlier this month after members of civil society were detained and charged. Pha Lina

Standing with civil society in Cambodia

Nearly 25 years ago, history was made with the signing of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, which aimed to put an end to years of devastating conflict in Cambodia. The agreements were thought to signal a new era for a peaceful Cambodia, laying the foundations for building a Cambodia that was just and democratic, and which respected human rights and the rule of law.

Two years later, under the guidance of the United Nations, Cambodia’s first constitutionally elected government assumed power. During the elections, polls were open for six days, yet 42 per cent of the voters cast their votes on the first day – almost 2.1 million Cambodians.

Against all odds – torrential rain, and a campaign of threats and violence from the remnants of the Khmer Rouge and other armed groups – people were hopeful about the prospect of peace and democracy in their country. Almost 90 per cent of the population voted.

But did we achieve the democracy we were promised? If we ever did have it, it is undoubtedly now under severe threat given the recent attacks on civil society.

A cornerstone of any democracy and a crucial factor in ensuring respect for human rights is the fostering of a strong, independent civil society. This was something that was specifically guaranteed by both the government and international partners in the Paris Peace Agreements.

As part of the agreements, it was stated that Cambodia will endeavour to “ensure respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cambodia” and “support the right of all Cambodian citizens to undertake activities that would promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms”.

Moreover, as part of this historic agreement, the eighteen countries and the UN who are also signatories, promised “to promote and encourage respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cambodia as embodied in the relevant international instruments in order, in particular, to prevent the recurrence of human rights abuses”.

Since the Paris Peace Agreements were signed, human rights organisations have undertaken vital work to promote and protect the human rights of all Cambodians, while providing assistance to countless victims of rights abuses. In the past, Cambodia has even been praised for having a relatively vibrant civil society, showing how far we have come.

However, current events threaten the progress made in this area, and give cause to reflect on the vital role of a free civil society in Cambodia as well as on whether sufficient actions have been taken by those who promised to help uphold it. Recent weeks have seen the rapid deterioration of the already fragile state of affairs for Cambodian human rights defenders, independent political commentators and activists.

Too many are being judicially harassed and denied their rights to liberty, freedom of expression and a fair trial. Young people are being jailed for harmless statements posted on social media platforms. Citizens peacefully defending their land and natural resources against exploitation are being arrested, threatened and even killed, while the perpetrators of such violence enjoy impunity.

Laws – such as the NGO Law and Trade Union Law – are being introduced that can too easily be wilfully misinterpreted and applied to curtail freedoms, and groups’ rights to assemble and protest against such developments are being further curtailed.

All Cambodians want to see reforms that will improve their livelihoods, security and wellbeing, and if the government is to achieve its goals of a better Cambodia, independent civil society should be seen a key partner, not an enemy. Our leaders should recall the spirit of the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991 and the democratic principles enshrined in our constitution, and collaborate with civil society.

The responsibility upon the international community to ensure that human rights are respected in Cambodia also remains to this day. After the 2013 elections, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia at the time acknowledged this continuing responsibility.

Now, it should be reiterated in light of the recent visit of the person currently assuming this role, Rhona Smith. Smith reported concern at the deteriorating situation she witnessed during her visit, describing the Cambodia she saw as being on the brink of a “dangerous tipping point”.

Of course, Cambodia has not returned to the horrors of its past, and hopefully it never will. But that cannot be a benchmark for success now. Today’s Cambodia does not compare well with the picture of a free and democratic country envisioned in the Paris Peace Agreements.

And if that vision is to be realised, greater responsibility is required from the government in safeguarding the freedoms set out in our Constitution and international instruments. In particular, the government needs to recognise the important role of a vibrant civil society in Cambodia and it would be prudent for the authorities to work with us towards our common goal – the good of all Cambodians.

Cambodia is long overdue the basic tenets of a liberal democracy – unrestricted civil society, free and fair elections, rule of law, and an independent judiciary.

Global civil society, international actors and all those who signed the Paris Peace Agreements also need to take action, to assist Cambodian civil society and the government to work together to ensure the Kingdom steps back from the brink and continues on a path towards a better future.

Chak Sopheap is the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR).

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