The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, ended his 11th fact-finding mission to Cambodia this week. Subedi noted progress in some human rights areas yet expressed sadness at seeing the democratic space in the country shrink, illustrated most starkly by the barricading of Freedom Park in Phnom Penh.
“Even though the general situation appears to have stabilized, the space for freedom of peaceful assembly and of speech seems to have shrunk in the aftermath of the most unfortunate violent incidents of the first week in January 2014,” he said.
“When visiting Freedom Park – a symbol of democracy– I was sorry to see it surrounded by barbed wire, preventing people from going there and exercising their freedom of speech and assembly. It gives the impression that there has been an attempt to put democracy in a cage in Cambodia. I hope that this situation will be remedied, and that the constitutional right to peaceful assembly, including at Freedom Park, will be promptly and fully reinstated for all Cambodians,” he added.
Establishing a mechanism to protect human rights
The Special Rapporteur also saw a need for an independent national human rights institution in Cambodia that would be able to expand the scope of rights, act as a focal point to champion people’s rights, make policy recommendations to the government and defend and protect people’s rights with the power to investigate cases of human rights violations, but only if it were truly independent.
While sensing “a deep-rooted frustration among the population, especially the youth, rural poor and other disfranchised and dispossessed people, about the lack of progress on some of the promised reforms,” the Rapporteur was “encouraged by the progress in the implementation of some of my recommendations, and the acceptance on the national agenda of those relating to electoral and parliamentary reform in particular.”
He noted that the latter have yet to see concrete progress, despite being the keys to resolving the current political deadlock. He concluded that “At this juncture what is needed is a clear assurance that the recommendations for electoral reform will be implemented with the degree of seriousness required to win the trust and confidence of the people, with a strict time frame to design and implement the reform, including through amendment of the Constitution.”
Concern over land grabbing and forced evictions
While welcoming progress made by the Government in policy development relating to land rights, including the adoption of the National Housing Policy, a White Paper on Land Policy and the drafting of an Environmental Impact Assessment Law, Subedi remained concerned about issues of transparency and accountability, and the absence of an effective dispute settlement mechanism.
During his visit, Subedi held discussions with land grab victims in Chikhor Leu village, Sre Ambel District, Koh Kong province. The land overlapped with an economic land concession given over to the production of sugar which was linked to ruling-party senator Ly Yong Phat.
He also visited Spean Ches community in Preah Sihanouk province. Some residents of this community were among the over 100 families violently evicted on April 20th 2007 from a plot of land 500 meters away in Commune 4, Mittapheap District, Sihanoukville, by 150 armed forces including military. Subedi held discussions with community members before meeting with the provincial governor.
Subedi’s visit throws light on long-standing land grabbing cases that remain unresolved. In both cases, the state-involved land grabs happened over half a decade ago.
“I am deeply concerned by the numerous reports of violent evictions conducted in 2014, including physical assaults and the burning and bulldozing of homes. They demonstrate the urgent need for a national resettlement policy that properly regulates eviction and resettlement processes, and a re-examination of how the Government deals with land disputes involving poor families living on state land, including those that cannot provide proof of their claims,” he said. “The sense of injustice may be passed on to new generations for a long time to come unless urgently remedied, not only in new cases but also for those who suffered forced evictions long ago.”
Causes for optimism
In general, “I remain convinced that there is reason for optimism for the long-term development of the nation,” Subedi said, noting that people seem to have growing awareness of their human rights. “Democracy is about dialogue, debate and accommodation of competing interests for the greater good of the country. I welcome the release, even though on suspended prison sentence, of the 25 arrested and detained in relation to events in November 2013 and January 2014,” he said.
Subedi welcomed, in principle, the enactment of three fundamental laws to strengthen the functioning of the judiciary. However, he expressed concern about provisions for a strong presence and influence of the Executive in the Supreme Council of Magistracy, as well as provisions giving influence to the Ministry of Justice in matters relating to other activities of the judiciary.
“I sincerely hope that the members of the judiciary would sever their ties with the political parties, which is not conductive to the independence of the judiciary nor to the perception of independence, and that the Government would provide the additional resources needed for the new mechanisms created by these new laws to work effectively,” he said.
Subedi also encouraged the Government to ensure that such important pieces of legislation benefit from consultations with all relevant stakeholders. He also called for speedy parliamentary reform. “A functional Parliament capable of giving voice to the multitude of demands in society and able to hold the executive to account is the embodiment of a healthy democracy”, he said, and in Cambodia is “essential to enable the opposition to play a meaningful role”.
The Special Rapporteur called on all political parties to also consider reforming the Constitutional Council to make it truly independent and non-partisan, stressing that this would enable it to command the trust and respect of the entire population in crucial matters of national importance, such as the handling of electoral disputes and the interpretation of the Constitution, including the status of human rights in the Cambodian constitutional architecture.
Subedi commended the Cambodian government’s response to a recent sudden and massive return of Cambodian migrant workers from Thailand. He called on the Thai authorities to investigate the reported deaths of the Cambodians in Thailand and ascertain the reasons behind the sudden return of such large numbers of Cambodians.
Subedi also welcomed the progress toward improving labor relations, particularly by the emerging consensus among all the principal actors in this industry on the procedure and criteria to be applied in setting the minimum wage, but expressed concerns about workers and trade union leaders facing intimidation, including judicial intimidation, as a result of their involvement in industrial action. He added that it remained unclear whether a ban on demonstrations announced by the government in January had been lifted.
“I call upon the government to publicly declare that the ban the government announced in early January – which had no legal justification in the first place – is no longer in place,” he said.