Advocacy priorities at 42nd Session of UN Human Rights Council (September)
The forty-second Session of the UN Human Rights Council will take place from 9 to 27 September.
There are a variety of issues on the agenda this Session, both thematic and country-focused, and a number of human rights concerns that need to be addressed by the Council.
One of the priorities for CIVICUS and its members is the ongoing human rights and humanitarian crisis in Sudan. Despite a deal reached between the military and protesters in August, peaceful protesters continued to be killed on an almost daily basis. We join calls from local and international civil society for the Council to take immediate action to investigate and monitor human rights violations as a first step towards accountability and justice. The country is rated as closed on the CIVICUS monitor, representing its total lack of civic space and freedoms.
Saudi Arabi, also rated as closed, remains a serious ongoing concern as the country continues its decades-long clampdown on dissent, human rights activism and independent reporting. Women human rights defenders are still detained, and reportedly subjected to torture, for leading campaigns for women’s rights. In October 2018, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was extra-judicially murdered. CIVICUS, along with partners, will reiterate calls on the Council to establish a monitoring mechanism investigating human rights violations in the country and call for the immediate and unconditional release of the detained Saudi women human rights defenders and activists. Saudi Arabia is a member of the Human Rights Council. Members that flagrantly abuse human rights in their own territories undermine and delegitimise the work of the Council and should be held to higher standard of scrutiny.
Cameroon, rated as ‘repressed’ in CIVICUS’s Monitor, continues to undergo a human rights crisis. In October 2016, protests in Cameroon’s two minority English-speaking regions, the North-West and South-West, triggered the country’s “Anglophone crisis.” Since then, the two regions have been embroiled in a cycle of violence and human rights violations and abuses committed by government forces and by separatist armed groups. Against this backdrop, space for civil society continues to be severely diminished, and we call on members of the Council to take constructive steps to address the situation.
The Commission of Inquiry investigating human rights violations in Burundi will present its findings on the human rights situation in the country. We join calls for the HRC to renew the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry for a further year: with human rights violations ongoing, and 2020 elections approaching, ongoing scrutiny is crucial – particularly in the context of elections. Burundi is rates as ‘closed’ in CIVICUS’s Monitor, reflecting ongoing attacks on civil society members, human rights defenders and journalists.
The Council’s spotlight will also fall on Cambodia when both the Special Rapporteur on Cambodia and the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights will deliver reports on the situation in the country. Civic space in Cambodia has been increasingly under attack – the country is rated as ‘repressed’ in CIVICUS’s monitor – and this Session will provide a crucial opportunity for the Council to strengthen its response to such attacks on fundamental freedoms, and other human rights violations. CIVICUS and our partners are calling for the Special Rapporteur’s mandate to be renewed, and for enhanced scrutiny of the country’s human rights obligations by the OHCHR.
The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights will be reporting on the human rights crisis in Nicaragua, which the CIVICUS Monitor rates as ‘repressed’. Monitor findings show that freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly continue to be seriously curtailed by the government. Local civil society organisations have been stripped of their legal status and of their assets, and human rights defenders and journalists are harassed. Nicaragua continues to block the return of international human rights bodies to the country, including the special mechanism of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and OHCHR. CIVICUS joins local and international partners calling for continued scrutiny of Nicaragua’s human rights situation.
The Assistant Secretary General on reprisals will present a report the Council, and the resolution on reprisals will be presented for a vote to the Council members. We are calling on states to support a strong resolution which names specific examples of reprisals, including against CIVICUS members. This is a vital resolution because UN action is only possible with strong engagement from civil society on the ground, who not only provide information and analysis, but are on the front line of ensuring that human rights standards are respected by their own governments, and that violations are held to account.
A resolution on arbitrary detention will also be presented to the Council. This is a critical issue in terms of civic space: civil society members worldwide continue to face arbitrary detention as a result of their work. As well as being a serious human rights violation in its own right, this also contributes to a chilling effect on other civil society actors and human rights defenders.
CIVICUS and members’ events at the 42nd Session of the UN Human Rights Council:
Civic space as an early warning system, 16 Sep, 1-2pm, Room IV
This side event will explore the relationship between civic space crackdowns and broader human rights crises, with a view to discussing what potential early intervention from states and the Council could be taken on the basis of such attacks to elevate the Council’s preventative mandate and, ultimately, aim to stop countries spiraling into human rights crises.
The continued silencing and imprisonment of Saudi women human rights defenders, 26 Sep, 9.30-10.30am, Room XXIV
This panel will share the experiences of Saudi WHRDs and reflect on the reality they face in prison. Panelists, including Lina Al-Hathloul, the sister of detained human rights defender Loujain Al-Hathloul, will discuss the extent of the restrictions facing activists in Saudi Arabia and what further efforts can be taken internationally to ensure immediate release of WHRDs, including calling for a resolution from the UN Human Rights Council.
Current council members:
Afghanistan; Angola; Argentina; Australia; Austria; Bahamas; Bahrain; Bangladesh; Brazil; Bulgaria; Burkina Faso; Cameroon; Chile; China; Croatia; Cuba; Czechia; Democratic Republic of the Congo; Denmark; Egypt; Eritrea; Fiji; Hungary; Iceland; India; Iraq; Italy; Japan; Mexico; Nepal; Nigeria; Pakistan; Peru; Philippines; Qatar; Rwanda; Saudi Arabia; Senegal; Slovakia; Somalia; South Africa; Spain; Togo; Tunisia; Ukraine; United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; and Uruguay.
Advocacy priorities at 45th Session of UN Human Rights Council
The 45th Session of the UN Human Rights Council will sit from 14 September - 6 October, 2020 and there are a number of critical human rights resolutions up for debate and for the 47 Council members to address. Stay up to date by following @civicusalliance and #HRC45
CIVICUS will be engaging on a range of issues in line with our mandate to protect and monitor the rights to peaceful assembly, freedom of speech and freedom of association. In terms of country-specific situations, CIVICUS will be presenting evidence and recommendations on rights abuses in the Philippines, Burundi, Cambodia, Saudi Arabia and China. With relation to thematic issues, CIVICUS will be engaging on deliberations related to the prevention of human rights abuses, reprisals, and arbitrary detention. Full summaries below.
Civil society Participation in times of COVID19
Like last session, civil society participation has been significantly impacted by COVID-19. Travel restrictions and distancing guidelines means that in-person participation is conspicuously limited, particularly for organisations from the Global South. Opportunities for remote participation via video messaging are providing a welcome alternative - because of this change, people and groups affected by issues being discussed will, to some extent, be able to address the Council without being limited by their ability to travel to Geneva, as is usually the case. But being able to meet with and hear directly from human rights defenders in the room and in-person, whether through side events or statements, has long been a strength of the Council. The human rights defenders who attend Council sessions strengthen resolutions by providing first-hand information and serve to hold states to account, and their participation reinforces valuable partnerships. Like last session, opportunities to do so in-person will be very much missed.
The Philippines (Civic space rating:Obstructed)
- Extrajudicial killings of human rights defenders continue
- Abuse of COVID19 emergency measures to target government critics
- Serious concerns remain over domestic accountability mechanisms, and impunity still reigns for attacks on activists and journalists.
CIVICUS welcomed the resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council in June 2019 (41st Session) which mandated welcome monitoring of the human rights situation in the Philippines. The subsequent report by the Office of The Human Commissioner on Human Rights, presented in July 2020 (44th Session) shows clearly that human rights violations remain rampant, and that accountability for such violations remains distant. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing human rights conditions still further; in June, the Philippines was added to CIVICUS’s Watchlist, reflecting its sharp decline in civic freedoms.
CIVICUS joins civil society partners in the Philippines and internationally in calling for a Council-mandated independent investigative mechanism to address the ongoing systemic human rights violations perpetrated with impunity. This is clearly warranted by the situation set out in the OHCHR report, the lack of political will to engage and the demonstrable lack of adequate domestic investigative mechanisms.
Burundi (Civic space rating:Closed)
- Elections in May were marred by violence and rights violations
- The Youth league, the Imbonerakure, continue to carry out brutal attacks on critics of the government
- Activists and journalists remain imprisoned, while hundreds of thousands remain in exile.
An atmosphere of fear and violence prevails in Burundi, where state and powerful non-state actors are routinely allowed to imprison, seriously injure and kill people with impunity for attempting to exercise their rights to associate, peacefully assemble and express themselves. Any criticism of the ruling authorities is severely punished and there is virtually no media freedom. The internet is heavily censored, many websites are blocked and online criticism of power holders is subject to severe penalties.
CIVICUS calls for the renewal of the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Burundi. In the context of recent political developments, such a renewal, building off the investments to date in and from the CoI, would provide the best opportunity to prompt meaningful human rights progress in the country.
Cambodia (Civic space rating:Repressed)
- COVID-19 government measures have provided an opportunity to crack down on civil society groups.
- At least 22 people have been arrested for sharing allegedly ‘false news’ related to the pandemic.
- Opposition Leader, Kem Sokha, on trial since January on unsubstantiated charges of treason. Sokha has been barred from politics and could face up to 30 years in prison if convicted
The Cambodian government continues to crack down on civil society groups, independent media, and the political opposition and human rights defenders to silence critical voices in the country. In the past three years it has adopted a series of repressive laws that unduly restrict human rights. In November 2019, the Cambodian authorities had arbitrarily detained nearly 90 people solely on the basis of the peaceful expression of their opinions or political views as well as their political affiliations. The latest activists to be convicted of ‘incitement’, three employees of NGO Mother Nature, were sent to pre-trial detention on 6 September.
CIVICUS encourages States to deliver statements jointly or in a national capacity under the Item 10 interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Cambodia and the Item 2 general debate focusing on attacks against human rights defenders, journalists and other members of independent civil society, recommending a stronger approach to address the worsening situation. CIVICUS further encourages States to explore supporting a resolution which mandates yearly reporting from the High Commissioner, with updates in between Sessions.
Saudi Arabia (Civic space rating: Closed)
- It has been over two years since Saudi Arabia intensified its crackdown on women human rights defenders
- Reports of detined activists and critics of the government being subjected to torture in prison
- Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman continues to make direct orders for the arrest of activists
It has been over two years since women human rights defenders have been in prison, simply for demanding that women be treated equally to men. Punishment in the country is severe, with torture being formed used for many offences, and the country remains one of the world’s top executioners. When it comes to freedom of assembly, protesting is considered a criminal act and those who defy the ban can face arrest, prosecution and imprisonment.
States that flagrantly abuse human rights in their own territories undermine and delegitimise the work of the Council must be held up to scrutiny. Along with civil society partners, CIVICUS recommends that States ensure sustained attention by the Council at its 45th session by jointly reiterating calls on the Saudi government to implement the above-mentioned benchmarks, and by supporting the establishment of a monitoring and reporting mechanism over the situation.
China (Civic space rating:Closed)
- Mass detention, torture and mistreatment of millions of Uighurs and Turkic Muslims in Xianjang
- Chinese Communist Party continues to censor reporting about COVID-19
- Excessive use of force and arbitrary arrests around Hong Kong protests
On 26 June 2020, an unprecedented 50 United Nations experts called for “decisive measures to protect fundamental freedoms in China.” They highlighted China’s mass human rights violations in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang, suppression of information in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and attacks on rights defenders, journalists, lawyers and critics of the government across the country. They also raised concerns about the decision to draft a national security law for Hong Kong – without any meaningful consultation with the people of Hong Kong – which imposes severe restrictions on civil and political rights in the autonomous region. It was passed on 30 June 2020.
CIVICUS endorses the call by UN experts for a Special Session of the Human Rights Council to evaluate the range of violations by China’s government, and to establish an impartial and independent UN mechanism to closely monitor, analyze, and report annually on that topic. We urge the UN Secretary-General to appoint a Special Envoy, consistent with his Call to Action on Human Rights, and we call on the High Commissioner for Human Rights to fulfil her independent mandate to monitor and publicly report on China’s sweeping rights violations. We support the call that UN member states and UN agencies use all interactions with Chinese authorities to insist that the government comply with its international human rights obligations.
Prevention of human rights abuses
The ability to take Council action with regards to prevention of deteriorating human rights situations relies on an accurate flow of information from the ground, whether from human rights defenders or independent media. Civil society – including human rights defenders, journalists, and human rights monitors – are often the first affected by a worsening human rights situation. An increasingly inability to express dissent, gather in protest, or operate as independent civil society is often a clear signpost that further human right violations are to come, to be met by willfully restricted avenues of domestic resistance. As an immediate example, in the case in Tanzania, time is fast running out for the HRC to operationalize its protection mandate in order to prevent further deterioration.
In the report presented in March 2020 (the Council’s 43rd Session), the Rapporteurs highlighted this importance of civic space. As such, a resolution on the Council’s prevention mandate should highlight civic space restrictions as indicators for a worsening human rights situation. This would enable the Human Rights Council to take action to prevent severe human rights violations, including by working with the state in question constructively to roll back restrictions to civic space, before the situation becomes beyond repair. Specifically, that civil society indices, such as the CIVICUS Monitor, could be used to develop a more specific set of indicators and benchmarks relating to civic space which would then trigger intervention.
Further intervention could be operationalized through a Working Group on Prevention or the country level mechanism in New York.
CIVICUS encourages states to recommend that the use of such civic space indices is articulated in the resolution on the Council’s role in prevention. CIVICUS also recommends that states use civic space indicators in a systematic manner at the Human Rights Council in order to further operationalize its prevention mandate. This includes raising civic space concerns through individual and joint State statements at the Council, thematic debates, resolutions, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, and special sessions and urgent debates.
UN initiatives are only possible with strong engagement from civil society on the ground, who not only provide information and analysis, but are on the front line of ensuring that human rights standards are respected by their own governments, and that violations are held to account. Reprisals have a significant impact on citizen participation at every level of the international human rights infrastructure and are another example of civic space being squeezed.
There is no political cost to states engaging in reprisals, and we recommend that the new resolution incorporates an accountability mechanism. There are a number of emerging trends in types of reprisals leveled against individuals and civil society – false narratives driven on social media and the engagement of non-state actors being just two such escalating tends.
Often, the only deterrent to states engaging in this practice is to publicly name them. CIVICUS recommends that States use the Interactive Dialogue with the Assistant Secretary General to raise specific cases of reprisals – cases of reprisals in Egypt, Bahrain, Viet Nam and China are particularly prevalent. CIVICUS also recommends that reprisals taking place within the UN itself are highlighted.
Popular action is on the rise across the globe as people take to the streets to demand justice, equity and democratic rights. But this has been mirrored by an unprecedented use of excessive force and arbitrary detention to silence the legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of assembly. In 2019, the CIVICUS Monitor found that one of the most commonly-logged violations of civic rights was against the right to peaceful assembly. This trend looks set to continue, with States both weaponizing repressive laws in order to create justification for detention and arresting peaceful protesters on vague and ill-defined grounds.
In July, the Human Rights Committee published its General Comment 37 on Article 21 of the ICCPR – the freedom of peaceful assembly. In its guidance relating to arbitrary detention around freedom of assembly, the GC highlights that ‘the procedural guarantees of the Covenant apply to issues such as detention in connection with peaceful assemblies’. It also states that ‘preventative detention of targeted individuals, to keep them from participating in assemblies, may constitute arbitrary deprivation of liberty, which is incompatible with the right of peaceful assembly’, and that practices of indiscriminate mass arrest prior to, during or following an assembly, are arbitrary and thus unlawful’.
The CIVICUS Monitor as well as other monitoring trackers show that states are falling well short of this guidance. In India, thousands have been held in preventative detention in the context of CAA protests. In Iraq, approximately 3,000 demonstrators were detained during mass protests between October 2019 and April 2020. In Zimbabwe, a number of activists were arrested or abducted to prevent the protests from taking place. Belarus’ practice of mass detentions in the context of protest has prompted condemnation from the UN. Reports from the United States of unidentified police officers detaining protestors may also give rise to arbitrary detention. In Hong Kong, new security law allows for retroactive detention of protestors, well after the protests had ended.
CIVICUS recommends that States raise arbitrary detention in the context of protests in statements, jointly or in your national capacity, during the interactive dialogue with the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, and call on the Working Group to look specifically at this issue. CIVICUS further encourages States to name country situations in which individuals have been arbitrarily detained in the context of protests – for example the United States, Belarus, Zimbabwe.
Afghanistan, Angola, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chile, Czech Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Denmark, Eritrea, Fiji, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Libya, Marshall Islands, Mauritania, Mexico, Namibia, Nepal, Netherlands, Nigeria, Poland, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Qatar, Republic of Korea, Senegal, Slovakia, Somalia, Sudan, Spain, Togo, Ukraine, Uruguay, Venezuela
Civic space ratings from the CIVICUS Monitor
OPEN NARROWED OBSTRUCTED REPRESSED CLOSED
As the climate crisis intensifies, so does the crackdown on environmental activism, finds new report
New research brief from the CIVICUS Monitor examines the crackdown of environmental activism and profiles important victories civil society has scored in the fight for climate justice.
- Environmental protests are being criminalised and met with repression on all continents
- State authorities and private companies are common perpetrators of violations to civic freedoms
- Despite the risks and restrictions, activist groups continue to score important victories to advance climate justice.
As world leaders meet in Glasgow for the UN Climate Change Negotiations (COP26), peaceful environmental activists are being threatened, silenced and criminalised around the world. The host of this year's meeting is one of many countries where activists are regularly facing rights violations.
New research from the CIVICUS Monitor looks at the common tactics and restrictions being used by governments and private companies to suppress environmental movements. The research brief “Defenders of our planet: Resilience in the face of restrictions” focuses on three worrying trends: Bans and restrictions on protests; Judicial harassment and legal persecution; and the use of violence, including targeted killings.
As the climate crisis intensifies, activists and civil society groups continue to mobilise to hold policymakers and corporate leaders to account. From Brazil to South Africa, activists are putting their lives on the line to protect lands and to halt the activities of high-polluting industries. The most severe rights abuses are often experienced by civil society groups that are standing up to the logging, mining and energy giants who are exploiting natural resources and fueling global warming.
As people take to the streets, governments have been instituting bans that criminalise environmental protests. Recently governments have used COVID-19 as a pretext to disrupt and break up demonstrations. Data from the CIVICUS Monitor indicates that the detention of protesters and the use of excessive force by authorities are becoming more prevalent.
In Cambodia in May 2021, three environmental defenders were sentenced to 18 to 20 months in prison for planning a protest against the filling of a lake in the capital. While in Finland this past June, over 100 activists were arrested for participating in a protest calling for the government to take urgent action on climate change. From authoritarian countries to mature democracies, the research also profiles those who have been put behind bars for peacefully protesting.
“Silencing activists and denying them of their fundamental civic rights is another tactic being used by leaders to evade and delay action on climate change” said Marianna Belalba Barreto, Research Lead for the CIVICUS Monitor. “Criminalising nonviolent protests has become a troubling indicator that governments are not committed to saving the planet .”
The report shows that many of the measures being deployed by governments to restrict rights are not compatible with international law. Examples of courts and legislative bodies reversing attempts to criminalise nonviolent climate protests are few and far between.
Despite the increased risks and restrictions facing environmental campaigners, the report also shows that a wide range of campaigns have scored important victories, including the closure of mines and numerous hazardous construction projects. Equally significant has been the rise of climate litigation by activist groups. Ironically, as authorities take activists to court for exercising their fundamental right to protest, activist groups have successfully filed lawsuits against governments and companies in over 25 countries for failing to act on climate change.
ASEAN must step up its efforts to address deteriorating human rights and civic space situation in Southeast Asia
Under the Chairmanship of Cambodia in 2022, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) must meaningfully address the regressive human rights crisis in the region, including the rapidly deteriorating situation in Myanmar, said rights groups at a webinar today.
The webinar titled ‘Cambodia as ASEAN Chair: Prospects for Human Rights in 2022’ organised by CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation and Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) discussed the human rights situation in the region and how the ASEAN has responded in 2021 as well as its trajectory as Cambodia spearheads ASEAN next year.
Eleven months after the coup and eight months since ASEAN leaders adopted the five-point consensus, the human rights and humanitarian crisis continues unabated in Myanmar ‒ at least 1,200 people including children have been killed and 10,568 arrested. The deteriorating situation affects not only the daily lives of the people on the ground but also the human rights and political discourse at the regional and international level.
Questions remain as to what extent the regional bloc can effectively bring immediate progress to the situation of Myanmar or if it will just be used to legitimise the military regime.
‘While we welcome the decision by ASEAN to exclude the military junta from ASEAN Summits, we are deeply concerned about the lack of substantive actions to mitigate the Myanmar crisis. The whole country is now dealing with a multi-level crisis. It is not sufficient for ASEAN alone to tackle this crisis. Therefore, we call on ASEAN to cooperate with the UN and international mechanisms to take immediate concrete actions. Further delays in actions will allow the junta to commit more atrocities and this means more bloodshed for the people on the ground,’ said Khin Ohmar, Chair of Progressive Voice.
‘As the next chair, Cambodia has a huge task ahead to ensure that ASEAN unity and credibility is not lost. If ASEAN allows the junta to continue in this manner, the Myanmar crisis will further impact the regional stability and development. ASEAN needs to understand that it is in its best interest to work with the National Unity Government and the people of Myanmar,’ she added.
‘We want ASEAN leadership to have a strategic vision and action plan. ASEAN will not be able to implement its five-point consensus alone, particularly after the junta military has blatantly denied their commitment in the consensus. Under the Cambodia Chairmanship, ASEAN must engage with NUG, the United Nations, dialogue partners, and civil society. What is happening is not only a crisis to Myanmar but a crisis to the credibility of ASEAN and threats to security in general,’ said U Bo Hla Tint, Myanmar National Unity Government Ambassador to ASEAN.
According to the CIVICUS Monitor, fundamental freedoms in half of ASEAN Member States are rated as ‘repressed’. The year 2021 has also shown how restrictive laws have been used to stifle dissent and prosecute human rights defenders in numerous ASEAN countries and new laws passed that would curtail civic space. Further there has been a crackdown on peaceful protests and the use of extra-legal tactics, including online surveillance and smear campaigns, as well as torture and ill-treatment. In Cambodia specifically, CIVICUS documented the arbitrary arrest of dozens of activists, judicial harassment, and intimidation of opposition party CNRP members and families, and reprisals on journalists.
‘It is difficult to see how ASEAN would meaningfully progress on human rights issues with Cambodia at the helm. It has become a de facto one-party state after dismantling the opposition. Civic space has also continued to shrink in the country and those speaking up have faced blatant judicial harassment and at times outright violence. At the same time, we need to keep the pressure on them and support Cambodian civil society,’ said Josef Benedict, Asia Pacific Researcher of CIVICUS.
Under the pretext of COVID-19, Cambodia has introduced draconian measures such as the National Internet Gateway to increase online surveillance. This adds to the long list of concerns including the arbitrary arrest and judicial harassment of defenders and political opposition in the country. Cambodia’s degrading human rights record raises concerns about whether it has the political will to take the steps needed to improve on the human rights situation of ASEAN.
‘Cambodia should strive to improve the dire human rights situation it is facing domestically – especially considering the fact that elections are fast approaching – while also seeking to ensure regional peace and stability. As ASEAN chair, Cambodia must rally its ASEAN partners to answer the calls for support coming from Myanmar, and take concrete action rather than hide behind the argument of non-interference,’ said Sopheap Chak, the Executive Director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR).
ASEAN’s prospects of human rights in 2022 remain rocky and uncertain, reflecting on the domestic situation ASEAN Member States, particularly its Chair, must deal with. Nevertheless, the panelists called on civil society and various actors to keep monitoring the progress, or lack thereof, by ASEAN in responding to the situation of human rights and civic space in the region, particularly on immediate measures to bring an end to the crisis in Myanmar.
CIVICUS is a global alliance dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society around the world with 8,500 members in more than 175 countries. Based out of Johannesburg, CIVICUS has offices in New York and Geneva. www.civicus.org
The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) is a network of 82 member organisations across 23 countries, mainly in Asia. Founded in 1991, FORUM-ASIA works to strengthen movements for human rights and sustainable development through research, advocacy, capacity development and solidarity actions in Asia and beyond. It has consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council, and consultative relationship with the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. The FORUM-ASIA Secretariat is based in Bangkok, with offices in Jakarta, Geneva and Kathmandu. www.forum-asia.org
The CIVICUS Monitor is an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in all countries across the globe.
ASEAN: Refrain from legitimising junta and enhance cooperation to address human rights situation in Myanmar
Civil society organisations urge the regional-bloc under Cambodia Chairship to halt further measures that will bring legitimacy to the junta military of Myanmar.
We, the undersigned, express deep concern over the planned visit of Prime Minister Hun Sen, on behalf of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to Myanmar to meet with the junta representative, General Min Aung Hlaing. The visit is scheduled for 7 January 2022. We call on the ASEAN to refrain from further actions that will legitimise the junta and effectively implement the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus in alignment with the call made by the international community.
Cambodia and COVID19: State of Emergency draft law will put civic freedoms at further risk
Cambodia and COVID19: State of Emergency draft law will put civic freedoms and human rights defenders further at risk
CIVICUS, FORUM-ASIA, Frontline Defenders and Civil Rights Defenders are seriously concerned about draconian provisions in Cambodia’s draft State of Emergency Law which mandates unfettered power to the executive, undermining fundamental freedoms with no defined endpoint.
The Cambodian government must immediately revise the draft law to bring it in line with international human rights laws and standards. If not, these emergency powers will be used as yet another weapon in Cambodia’s legal arsenal to quash dissent, stifle critics and silence human rights defenders.
The draft law bestows executive power to ban or restrict meetings and to close public or private spaces. It also allows the government to put in place means to observe all telecommunications systems, and to ban or restrict news or social media deemed to “generate public alarm or fear or generate unrest, or that could bring about damage to national security, or that could bring into being confusion regarding the state of emergency”. Failure to follow these measures could result in severely disproportionate prison sentences of up to five years – rising to ten years if deemed to ‘impact national security’ – and fines of up to 5,000,000 riels (about $1,250 USD).
The severity of the health crisis presents serious challenges for governments and requires measures to safeguard health and wellbeing. International human rights law gives space for governments to take on exceptional powers at exceptional times. But such measures must be necessary, enshrined in law, proportionate and non-discriminatory.
The draft State of Emergency Law contains no sunset clause and can only be ended by Royal Decree, which could allow the law to be used well beyond the end of the current pandemic. The potential permanence of these very restrictive measures makes the legislation neither proportionate nor necessary and would severely undermine Cambodia’s international human rights obligations to protect freedom of expression and assembly, as well as the right to privacy, enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and its own Constitution.
Our organisations are further concerned about provisions relating to restrictions on the media. Independent media in Cambodia has been under attack for several years, and media workers have been attacked, threatened and imprisoned for criticism of the government. The sweeping powers provided in this bill to ban media accused of ‘damaging national security’ will risk further rollbacks of press freedom and freedom of expression. Since January, at least 22 people have been arrested for sharing allegedly ‘false news’ relating to COVID-19. Human rights defenders, including the Acting Director of local human rights rights group LICADHO, have been threatened over comments made about the government’s response to the pandemic.
Vaguely-worded and over-broad measures in the draft law to monitor telecommunications systems combined with existing problematic laws will further increase repressive surveillance of activists and government critics.
Cambodia has a history of misusing legislation in order to silence critics and human rights defenders, and to entrench power in the hands of the ruling party. Its human rights record over the last years has been increasingly dismal. The dissolution of its political opposition and jailing of opposition members, as well as attacks on the press and against NGOs and unions, have shown that authorities are already willing and able to use and misuse vaguely-worded laws to stifle dissent. This civic space backsliding over the past three years has, furthermore, meant that the law cannot be scrutinized by either an opposition party, or independent civil society. Such scrutiny is crucial for the principle of governing by consent.
The global pandemic means that governments worldwide must take steps to safeguard the right to health of those they serve. However, all human rights are interconnected and interdependent. Laws brought in to protect health must not be given carte blanche to blatantly disregard fundamental rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.
- Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
- CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
- Civil Rights Defenders
- Frontline Defenders
Cambodia Human Rights Crisis: The UN Human Rights Council Should Act Now
To Members and Observer States of the United Nations Human Rights Council
The undersigned civil society organizations are writing to draw your attention to the ongoing human rights crisis in Cambodia and to call for your support at the upcoming 48th session of the UN Human Rights Council (the “Council”) to ensure that the resolution on Cambodia effectively reflects the significant deterioration of the human rights situation in the country and enhances the monitoring and reporting by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
The human rights situation in Cambodia has continuously worsened since 2017, as the government-controlled courts dissolved the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and barred its co-founders, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha and more than a hundred CNRP politicians from politics, while replacing over 5,000 locally elected officials with members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
The situation has further deteriorated since the last Human Rights Council resolution on Cambodia was adopted in September 2019. Judicial harassment against opposition members has sharply increased, including through the conduct of mass trials against them in more recent months. Human rights defenders, activists, independent media and media workers, and trade unionists have continued to be relentlessly persecuted through judicial harassment and legal action. Environmental human rights defenders and youth activists have specifically been targeted: recently, six members1 of Mother Nature - a grassroots environmental group - were detained under serious charges including “plotting” to overthrow the government and face up to 10 years in prison. A highly politicized judicial system renders the prospect of fair trials for those deemed a threat to the interests of the government virtually non-existent.
The government has used the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to significantly expand its powers through an over-broad and vague state of emergency law2 ; a similarly broad Covid-19 law that allows for up to 20-year prison sentences for violations of Covid-19 measures; and the selective prosecution of political opponents who criticized the government’s Covid-19 efforts. The government also failed to protect human rights in its Covid-19 response. The government’s lockdowns were imposed without ensuring access to adequate food, medical, and other humanitarian assistance, and authorities took insufficient steps to prevent major Covid-19 outbreaks among the prison population in a penal system plagued by chronic overcrowding.
Laws are routinely misused in Cambodia to restrict human rights, undermine and weaken civil society, and criminalize individuals for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. The authorities continue to adopt repressive legislation, with complete lack of oversight. In the past year, the government has taken drastic measures to further increase online surveillance, clamp down on freedom of expression online and erode privacy rights. In February 2021, the authorities adopted the “Sub-decree on the Establishment of a National Internet Gateway” which aims at forcing all web traffic and internet connections through government controlled and monitored gateways by February 2022. The pending “Draft Law on Cybercrime” and the “Draft Law on Public Order” would provide further tools to criminalize freedom of expression or behaviors in the digital, print, and public spaces, in addition to legislation already denounced by the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Cambodia and other UN Special Procedures3.
Noting the announcement of Commune Council elections to be on June 5, 2022, we are deeply concerned that there has been no meaningful progress to restore human rights.
The Council has a critical role to play in addressing the ongoing human rights crisis in Cambodia. It is imperative that the Council takes robust action with regard to the government’s escalating repression by sending a strong signal at its 48th session - the last opportunity within the context of the biennial Human Rights Council resolution to address the human rights crisis in Cambodia before the Commune Council elections in 2022 and the National Assembly elections in 2023. For this reason, our organizations urge the Human Rights Council to:
- Renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Cambodia, so as to allow the mandate to continue to work on long-term issues.
- Request the OHCHR to monitor and report on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, and in particular in the context of the electoral process, and to present to the Human Rights Council an oral update with recommendations at the 49th session, to be followed by an interactive dialogue, and to present a written report at the 51st session in an enhanced interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Cambodia.
- Highlight escalating repression and restrictions on human rights, including persecution of human rights defenders, media workers and trade unionists, and misuse of legislation to restrict human rights.
We further urge your government, during the 48th session of the Human Rights Council, to speak out clearly against ongoing violations in Cambodia.
We remain at your disposal for any further information.
1. Amnesty International
2. ARTICLE 19
3. Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
4. CIVICUS – World Alliance for Citizen Participation
5. Human Rights Watch
6. International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
7. World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)
1In May 2021, the authorities convicted and sentenced three Mother Nature activists to 18 and 20 months in prison. Two others were convicted in absentia.
In June 2021, the authorities arrested four Mother Nature activists, released one, and maintained the other three in pre-trial detention.
2The Law on the Management of the Nation in State of Emergency (April 2020)
3See, for example, Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO), Law on Trade Unions, Law on Political Parties
Civic space in Cambodia is rated as repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor.
- Renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Cambodia, so as to allow the mandate to continue to work on long-term issues.
Cambodia Should Scrap Rights-Abusing National Internet Gateway
We, the following 32 human rights organisations, call on the Cambodian authorities to revoke the Sub-Decree on the Establishment of the National Internet Gateway (NIG).
Cambodia: the international community must step up efforts to address human right violations
Statement at the 51st Session of the UN Human Rights Council
Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia
Delivered by Lisa Majumdar
Thank you, Mr President, and thank you Special Rapporteur for your report.
In the face of ongoing reporting by the Special Rapporteur, the Cambodian government has shown no political will to undertake democratic or civic space reforms.
Cambodian human rights defenders and activists continue to face repression and persecution. Highly politicised courts mean that those arbitrarily detained and charged are often held for prolonged periods in pretrial detention and have no chance of getting a fair trial. The ongoing harassment of the Nagaworld workers union and attacks on press freedom is extremely worrying.
The criminalisation of the opposition in the last five years and recent efforts to harass and undermine new political parties during the commune elections are precursors of what the Cambodian people can expect from their national elections next year.
If the international community wants to see a free and fair elections in Cambodia it must step up efforts to address these violations.
We call on the Council to take note of the benchmarks set out in the Special Rapporteur’s report, particularly those relating to the opening up of civic and political space and ceasing the persecution of human rights defenders, specifically:
- Release detained human rights defenders and political dissidents and drop the charges against them
- Desist from applying and reform draconian laws including the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO)
- Restore and re-enfranchise a variety of political parties, and ensure free and fair elections.
If these benchmarks are not met, the Council must be prepared to take stronger action by way of a stronger monitoring mandate. Failure to do so will see the one-party state entrenched still further in years to come.
Civic space in Cambodia is rated as "Repressed" by the CIVICUS Monitor
CAMBODIA: ‘No free and fair election can take place in the current political environment’
CIVICUS speaks about Cambodia’s communal elections of June 2022 with Lee Chung Lun, Campaign and Advocacy Programme Officer of the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL).
Established in 1997, ANFREL is a regional civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes democratic, free and fair elections by conducting election monitoring, capacity building and civic engagement in member countries.
How free and fair were the recent local elections in Cambodia, and what were their results?
The official results of the elections for the commune and sangkat – an administrative subdivision – council held on 5 June 2022 gave the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) 9,376 (80.7 per cent) of the 11,622 council seats and 1,648 (99.8 per cent) of the 1,652 positions of commune chief. The recently reactivated Candlelight Party gained 2,198 (18.9 per cent) of council seats and four commune chief positions. The remaining 48 council seats went to other small parties.
The CPP’s victory is no surprise given its tight control of politics and the pressures on the opposition, including the dissolution of the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party. In such context, the CPP won over 3,000 more seats than it did in the 2017 elections, and its popular vote surged from 3.5 million to 5.3 million.
However, it was unexpected that the Candlelight Party only managed to secure four commune chief positions despite winning one-fifth of the popular vote. The disproportionate vote-to-seat translation warrants further investigation.
Overall, Cambodia still falls short of the benchmark for free, fair and inclusive elections, as assessed in ANFREL’s pre-election assessment mission. ANFREL’s member, the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), also noted various irregularities in the process.
The undemocratic elements of the existing legal framework continue to allow room for abuse. In recent years, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, crackdowns on the media, CSOs and the political opposition have increased. Numerous opposition candidates and members of opposition parties, most notably from the Candlelight Party, became the target of harassment and intimidation throughout the election period. As long as threats against the opposition and civil society continue to be prevalent, there can’t be a genuine and legitimate election.
What role did civil society play in the election process?
In July 2021, a coalition of 64 Cambodian CSOs launched a list of recommendations that they named ‘minimum conditions for legitimate commune and sangkat council elections’. These included enabling a free political environment and active participation in political activities and allowing the main opposition to review and select members of the National Election Committee (NEC). They also called for greater political neutrality of military forces and independence of the courts, as well as freedom for the media and CSOs to function. Regrettably, no significant changes have been made since then.
CSOs such as COMFREL recruited, trained and deployed citizen observers to monitor the election process. The NEC’s accreditation standards, however, are questionable, given that 93 per cent of the 74,885 accredited election observers came from organisations closely linked to the CPP. More than half of them came from the Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia and Cambodian Women for Peace and Development, led by Cambodian prime minister’s son Hun Manet and deputy prime minister Men Sam An, respectively.
Cambodia is virtually a one-party state and now has a mostly closed civic space as a result of ongoing attacks on CSOs, independent media and the political opposition. Since 2017, the government has arrested, imprisoned, and harassed hundreds of activists, opposition figures and journalists. Some flee the country out of fear of retaliation.
The draconian provisions outlined in the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations continue to be in effect. The law forbids unregistered organisations from carrying out any activity and grants sole authority over the registration process to the Ministry of the Interior, while registered organisations must adhere to a broadly defined ‘political neutrality’ requirement. CSOs are frequently required to go through informal approval processes with local authorities to carry out their work on the ground, even though the law does not require them to do so.
Do you think the results of the communal elections will be replicated in the upcoming national elections?
The results of the commune and sangkat council elections can be regarded as a predictor of the results of the next National Assembly elections, scheduled to take place in July 2023. They confirm once again that no free and fair election can take place in Cambodia’s current political environment. If attacks on the opposition and civil society continue, the CPP will retain its power in the next election.
What support does Cambodian civil society need from international organisations?
Cambodian civil society needs more attention from the international community on critical human rights violations and the dwindling state of democracy. International organisations should keep up their efforts to monitor developments in Cambodia closely and extend solidarity with Cambodian civil society, which frequently faces threats and harassment while carrying out their work. Local CSOs also need funding to continue their advocacy and campaigning on the ground.
CAMBODIA: ‘This is a textbook case of organised crime with links to the state’
CIVICUS speaks with Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, a Spanish national and co-founder of Mother Nature Cambodia (MNC), a civil society organisation (CSO) that advocates and campaigns locally and internationally for the preservation, promotion and protection of Cambodia’s natural environment. Due to their work, the authorities have systematically intimidated and criminalised MNC activists. Gonzalez-Davidson has been convicted in absentia for his activism and currentlyfaces further charges.
What were the origins of MNC?
We founded MNC in 2013, and the most important factor leading to its founding was that the environment in Cambodia, and especially the forest, was being decimated so fast. Because I could speak Khmer, I was a translator and was reading about it in the news and eventually also seeing it happen.
This senseless destruction was being disguised as development, but in reality it was organised crime sponsored by the state, including the army, the police, politicians at all levels and local authorities. It was painful to see. Local Indigenous people were being cheated and this got me fired up.
I also came to the realisation that civil society, and especially international organisations that were allegedly protecting the environment, were not doing anything that was effective enough. Local groups were not able to do much, and some international groups were doing greenwashing: misleading the public with initiatives that were presented as environmentally friendly or sustainable, but were not addressing the real causes of the problems.
A small group of friends and I started a campaign to stop a senseless hydroelectric dam project, which we knew was never about electricity but about exploiting natural resources and allowing logging and poaching. I was deported a year and a half after we started MNC. Over time, we have had to evolve to try and expose environmental crimes by the state on a large scale.
What have been the main activities and tactics of MNC?
They have changed over time. Back in 2013 to 2015, we could still do community empowerment and hold peaceful protests. We could bring people from cities to remote areas. In 2015, the harassing and jailing of activists started. We realised peaceful protests could not happen anymore because protesters would be criminalised. We continued to do community empowerment until 2017, but then had to stop that too.
One of our biggest tactics is going to a location, recording short videos and presenting them to the public so that Cambodians can understand, click, share and comment. We have received millions of views. We also did shows on Facebook live and lobbied opposition parties in parliament. From 2019 onwards, activists could no longer appear in the videos and we had to blur their faces and distort their voices. Now we can’t even do that because it is too risky.
What is the state of civic space in Cambodia?
The regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen has destroyed democratic institutions, including active and independent civil society, independent media and opposition parties. It has dismantled all these as it realised people were ready and hungry for democracy.
There is a lot for the regime to lose if the status quo changes, mainly because of money. The regime is mostly organised crime. They don’t want pesky independent journalists, activists organising protests or CSOs doing community empowerment. They don’t want to lose power and be held accountable. This is why now there is very little space compared to five years ago, and the situation is still going downhill.
Most civil society groups have retreated and are not pushing the boundaries. They are afraid of their organisation being shut down, funding being cut, or their activists and staff being thrown in jail. Indeed, working in Cambodia is difficult but it’s not acceptable to have a very small number of CSOs and activists speaking up.
What gives me hope is that conversations and engagement among citizens about democracy are still happening, and that repression cannot go on forever.
Why has MNC been criminalised, and what impact has this had and what is impact of the court cases?
Cambodia doesn’t really have any other group like us. We are a civil society group, but we are made up of activists rather than professional staff. Other activists used to do forest patrols in the Prey Lang forest, but the government forced them to stop. There are also Indigenous communities and environmental activists trying to do some work, but what happened to MNC is also a message to them.
In 2015, three MNC activists were charged and subsequently convicted for their activities in a direct-action campaign against companies mining sand in Koh Kong province. In September 2017, two MNC activists were arrested for filming vessels we suspected were illegally exporting dredged sand on behalf of a firm linked to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. In January 2018, the two activists were fined and sentenced to a year in jail.
In September 2020, three activists affiliated with MNC were arbitrarily detained while planning a peaceful protest as part of a campaign against the planned privatisation and reclamation of Boeung Tamok lake in the capital, Phnom Penh. They were sentenced to 18 months in prison for ‘incitement’.
Most recently, in June 2021, four environmental activists affiliated with MNC were charged for investigating river pollution in the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh. They have been charged with ‘plotting’ and ‘insulting the King’. There are currently six MNC activists in detention.
We have been charged with threatening to cause destruction, incitement, violating peoples’ privacy – just for filming at sea – and the latest additions to the list are ‘plotting’ to violently overthrow institutions – just for recording sewage going into the Mekong river – and insulting the King. The government is no longer even pretending that this is about law enforcement and is now just picking crimes to charge us with.
As we become more effective in what we do, the state’s rhetoric against us has become more aggressive. The authorities have vilified us, calling us traitors and terrorists. Repression starts from the very bottom, with the local police, the mayor, the military police and their civilian friends who are in the business of poaching, logging and so on. They follow you, threaten you and even try to bribe you. They also control the media narrative and have trolls on social media. Even if all you do is a media interview, they will threaten you online.
This has created a climate of fear among activists. As in any other dictatorship, Cambodia has always been ruled by fear. This percolates down to young people, who make up the vast majority of our activists. Their families and friends get really worried too. When people feel there is less of a risk in getting involved, the state hits activists and civil society again with more arbitrary and trumped-up charges, as a way to instil further fear in people’s minds.
The impact of the court cases against MNC has been strong. At first we were able to put up with them by diversifying our tactics and putting new strategies in place, but over the last two years and with six people in jail, it’s become more difficult. But this won’t stop our activism. It will not defeat us.
Have you faced threats from private companies?
The line between the private sector and the state is blurred in Cambodia, and in certain cases is just not even there. You don’t have a minister or the army saying, ‘this is my hydroelectric dam’ or ‘we are doing sand mining’, but everyone knows the links are there.
Those representing the state will provide the apparatus and resources to threaten activists and local communities, and businesspeople – who sometimes are their own family members – will give them a percentage of the earnings. For example, sand from mining exported to Singapore – a business worth a few hundred million dollars – was controlled by a few powerful families, including that of the leader of the dictatorship, Hun Sen. This is a textbook case of organised crime with links to the state. And when a journalist, civil society group or local community tries to expose them, they use the weapons of the state to silence, jail, or bribe them.
Why did MNC decide to formally disband?
In 2015 the government passed a repressive NGO law with lots of traps that made it difficult for us to be in compliance. I was also no longer in the country, as I was not allowed to return even though I had been legally charged and convicted there. In 2013, when we registered, there were three of us, plus two nominal members who were Buddhist monks. The other two founders were taken to the Ministry of Interior and told to disband or otherwise go to jail, so they decided to disband.
We also thought it would be better not to be bound by the NGO law. Cambodian people have the right to protect their national resources. According to the Cambodian Constitution and international treaties the state has signed, we are not breaking the law. But we know this will not stop them from jailing us.
What can international community do to support MNC and civil society in Cambodia?
Some things are being done. Whenever there is an arbitrary arrest of activists, there are embassies in the capital, United Nations institutions and some Cambodian CSOs who speak up.
That’s good, but sadly it’s not enough. If you are doing business with Cambodia, such as importing billions of dollars per year worth of garments, you have to do more than just issue statements. You should make a clear connection between the health of democracy in Cambodia and the health of your business relationships. For example, the UK is working on a trade deal with Cambodia, and it must attach to it conditions such as ensuring a free media and halting the arbitrary jailing of activists.
The problem is that some diplomats don’t understand what is going on or don’t care about the human rights situation. Southeast Asian countries should also help each other and speak up on the situation in Cambodia. Not just civil society but members of parliament should call out, send letters to their ambassador and so forth.
CAMBODIA: ‘We need to bring back to life the spirit of the Paris Peace Agreement’
The conditions for civil society in Cambodia have continued to deteriorate. In 2018, the government imposed further restrictions on the right to the freedom of expression and grew increasingly intolerant of public protests in the run-up to elections, ahead of which the main opposition party was banned. CIVICUS speaks about these restrictions with a civil society representative who asked to remain anonymous due to security concerns. Our interviewee reflects on the conditions that should be met so that Cambodia can evolve from aone-party state to a functioning democracy.
What restrictions were imposed around the July 2018 elections, and to what extent was civil society able to work around them?
Cambodia held an election of representatives for the National Assembly on 29 July 2018. This was an election without an opposition, because after the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) made unprecedented gains in the June 2017 local elections, it was dissolved by the Supreme Court on the grounds that it fostered dissent with the assistance of foreign powers. As was expected, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party won nearly all the 125 seats that were at stake.
The government had initially invited international civil society organisations (CSOs) to take part in the election monitoring process. However, most declined when they confirmed that there were structural issues, including the dissolution of the opposition party and the lack of independence of the National Election Committee, that would make the elections unfair and non-inclusive.
There was very little space for civil society to engage with the government. Due to the vague requirement of ‘political neutrality’ imposed by the 2015 Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations (LANGO), CSOs are supposed to be politically neutral even when they take part in dialogue forums related to political processes. The political neutrality clause has been repeatedly used to shut down independent CSOs or deny them registration. On top of this, the informal election monitoring platform run by civil society was banned the government. The government-approved monitoring groups, which went on to endorse the results, had close ties to the ruling party.
A number of laws and regulations were used against civil society, including but not limited to the LANGO, the Anti-Corruption Law and the Taxation Law. Anti-corruption charges against CSO activists, the shutdown of media channels and various forms of intimidation introduced additional restrictions on the operations of civil society. The government applied a regulation, Notice No. 175 - which was rescinded afterwards, in November 2018 - that required CSOs to notify the local government three days in advance of conducting any field activities. Seeing regulations being introduced and strictly enforced, civil society also resorted to self-censorship around the elections.
Additionally, a document produced by the Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit, the White Paper on the Political Situation in Cambodia, singled out several CSOs as being linked to an allegedly foreign-backed attempted ‘Colour Revolution’. Pro-government media also disseminated the idea that some CSO leaders had engagements with the Colour Revolution and the CNRP. On top of this, some CSO leaders moved from civil society into the political arena. All of these had a negative impact on the visibility of civil society to the public.
Most independent media channels were shut down or suspended. As a result, civil society lacked the appropriate channels to voice its concerns. Alternative spaces on social media also declined, as cases proliferated of social media activists being arrested for their online posts or blogs. There was a crackdown on online freedoms before the elections, and internet censorship increased. Surveillance technology was used to monitor digital communications. Lots of conversation clips involving opposition party members, civil society activists and CSO leaders were released and used as proof to support accusations against civil society.
In sum, the already-reduced space for civil society shrank even further around the elections, due to the existence of extremely limited opportunities for multi-stakeholder dialogue, the intensive use of a repressive legal framework, attacks against the image of civil society and a reduced public visibility, and lack of access to traditional media along with online restrictions and digital security issues.
What needs to happen so that Cambodia can advance towards democracy?
In my personal opinion, in order to become a democratic state with a plural regime, the government of Cambodia should, first of all, provide opportunities for the leaders of the former opposition party to resume their activities, even through new political parties. If votes could be cast for individuals rather than political parties, that could help.
Second, it needs to bring back the culture of dialogue between the ruling party and the former opposition party and see how best they can understand each other and ensure that their activities cause minimal harm to each other and to the nation.
Finally, the government should request support from the international community, and particularly from the signatory states of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement (PPA) that put an end to the Cambodian-Vietnamese War. As well as providing for a ceasefire, the end of outside military assistance and the withdrawal of foreign forces, the PPA included provisions to ensure the exercise of the right of self-determination by the Cambodian people, through free and fair elections, and on national reconciliation. We need to bring back to life the spirit of the PPA.
How is the international community helping, and what more should it do to help?
It is my general understanding that various actors of the international community have adopted different positions. Western states such as European countries, the USA and Australia have shown concern about the lack of progress towards democracy in Cambodia, as well as the lack of guarantees for the electoral process. They have made some key asks and put some pressure on the government to address their concerns. They have pressed the government by placing conditions on future collaboration, suspending Cambodia’s preferential trade benefits under the European Union’s (EU) Everything But Arms (EBA) free trade scheme and withdrawing support from specific sectors.
At the same time, China and other countries maintained their full support of the government during the electoral process and, more recently, as the EU initiated procedures to suspend Cambodia’s trade preferences temporarily. Overall, Cambodia is seen as standing between two powers and need not take either side.
It is very important to note that, besides hurting the government, any diplomatic or trade conflict between Cambodia and other countries would also have a lot of negative impacts on the public, including civil society. For example, the suspension or elimination of EBA benefits would cause several challenges as a result of its effect on the trade balance, employment and investment.
I would like to see the international community establish effective coordination mechanisms among its various parties in order to have a unified voice on the situation in Cambodia. They should use an existing powerful mechanism such as the PPA, which is still in effect, and which makes it binding for all signatory states to support Cambodia in its path towards full peace and prosperity.
Civic space in Cambodia is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Cambodia: 4 years on, no effective investigation into Kem Ley’s unlawful killing
Appoint Independent Commission of Inquiry, Seek UN Assistance
Today, on the fourth anniversary of the killing of prominent political commentator and human rights defender Kem Ley, we, the 30 undersigned organizations, call on the Cambodian authorities to create an independent Commission of Inquiry to conduct an effective and impartial investigation that is long overdue into Kem Ley’s death. We further urge Cambodian authorities to cease intimidation and harassment of persons peacefully commemorating his passing.
On July 10, 2016, Kem Ley was shot and killed while having his morning coffee at a petrol station in central Phnom Penh. Without conducting a prompt, thorough, and independent investigation, the authorities arrested Oeuth Ang, who identified himself as “Chuob Samlab” (meaning “Meet to Kill” in Khmer) and “confessed” to the killing. Following a half-day trial on March 23, 2017, which was widely criticized for failure to meet international fair trial standards, the court found Oeuth Ang guilty of murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment. On May 24, 2019, the Supreme Court upheld his sentence.
Since 2016, many international and domestic human rights organizations have consistently called on the Cambodian government to set up an independent Commission of Inquiry to conduct a prompt, impartial, and effective investigation into this killing, with emphasis on examining the potential criminal responsibility of persons other than the direct perpetrator, in line with international standards set out in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The UN Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extralegal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions as well as the revised Minnesota Protocol on the Investigation of Potentially Unlawful Death reinforce the duty of governments to investigate unlawful deaths and to establish an independent commission of inquiry when states, like Cambodia, lack effective procedures to conduct such an investigation in accordance with international standards.
The Cambodian government, has to date, failed to take any steps towards the establishment of such an independent and impartial investigative body. Given the government’s unwillingness to conduct an independent investigation into Kem Ley’s killing, and civil society’s highly warranted lack of trust and confidence in Cambodia’s justice system which lacks the requisite levels of independence to adjudicate cases involving public officials, this body should be established under the auspices of the United Nations and composed of independent experts.
The Cambodian government’s continued antipathy towards Kem Ley’s case raise suspicions that he was murdered in retaliation for his work as a human rights defender. Kem Ley had often spoken on political and social issues. He was killed just days after he had spoken in an interview about an investigative report “Hostile Takeover”, released by the international nongovernmental organization Global Witness, which detailed widespread corruption in Cambodia tied to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and his family.
Soon after his death, Kem Ley’s then-pregnant wife and four sons fled Cambodia fearing for their lives. Australia granted them asylum after a barrage of threats to their lives while they hid without legal status for more than a year in Thailand.
Following the killing of Kem Ley, the Cambodian authorities have continually monitored, harassed, and ultimately disrupted and prohibited planned anniversary memorials of his death. Moreover, the authorities forced individuals wearing t-shirts with Kem Ley’s quotes or image to either remove them or cover them. These actions constitute arbitrary restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. We condemn such attempts to stifle free speech and reiterate our call to the Cambodian government to stop such harassment.
In July 2019, a day prior to the third anniversary of Kem Ley’s death, the authorities arrested youth activist Kong Raiya alongside three family members for selling t-shirts with images of Kem Ley and two of his famous quotes: “Wipe your tears and continue your journey” and “Although you do nothing, you would still be victimized. It’s just a matter of time when it’s your turn.” While the police released his family members without charge after they signed “pledges” that they would desist from similar protest activities in the future, Kong Raiya remained in pre-trial detention on apparently politically motivated charges of incitement for nearly five months until the authorities released him on bail on November 28, 2019. On June 19, 2020, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted Kong Raiya in absentia of “incitement to commit a felony” under articles 88, 494, and 495 of Cambodia’s Penal Code, and sentenced him to two years in prison, with the remainder of his sentence suspended due to time served in pre-trial detention. Kong Raiya was previously sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment in 2015 on spurious incitement charges in relation to a Facebook post that criticized the government.
On July 10, 2019, the authorities arrested another student activist, Soung Neakpaon, for holding a sign reading “End extrajudicial killings”near the petrol station where Kem Ley was slain. The authorities charged him with incitement and placed him in pre-trial detention, where he remained until he was granted bail in November 2019. On December 4, 2019, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted him in absentia of “incitement to commit a felony” under articles 494 and 495 of Cambodia’s Penal Code and sentenced him to two years in prison; he has not yet been re-arrested. On July 10, 2019, the authorities arrested twin brothers Chhum Huot and Chhum Hou for attempting to place flowers at the same petrol station. The authorities released them on the same day.
Ahead of the four-year anniversary of Dr. Kem Ley’s death Cambodian authorities already took restrictive measures to prevent peaceful commemorations of his passing. On July 8, 2020, police blocked a Buddhist ceremony held by a group of youth activists and monks at the petrol station where the murder had happened. The authorities detained one of the activists, wearing a t-shirt with Kem Ley’s face on it for questioning. The authorities released him after signing a ‘pledge’.
Kem Ley’s work and his life stood for building respect for civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. He particularly emphasized the importance of people’s equal and free participation in politics, and the rights of every person to freedom of association, expression, information and peaceful public assembly. The Cambodian government’s continued harassment of human rights defenders, labor activists, monks, journalists, members of the political opposition, and others critical of the government reflects a systematic culture of impunity that protects those responsible for the death of Kem Ley, and cracks down on any form of expression or information deemed critical of the government.
We, the 30 undersigned organizations, will continue our call for an independent, impartial, effective, and thorough investigation into Kem Ley’s killing until all those responsible are brought to justice.
ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR)
Asian Democracy Network (ADN)
Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL)
Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions (CATU)
Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR)
Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation (CFSWF)
Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC)
Cambodian Institute for Democracy (CID)
Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO)
Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL)
CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
Civil Rights Defenders
Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community (CCFC-Association)
Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL)
Human Rights Watch (HRW)
Informal Democratic Economy Association (IDEA)
International Commission of Jurists (ICJ)
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX)
Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada (LRWC)
Mother Nature Cambodia
People Center for Development and Peace (PDP-CENTER)
Transparency International Cambodia (TI-C)
World Organization Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Youth Resource Development Program (YRDP)
Civic space in Cambodia is rated as Repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor
Cambodia: A year on, the persecution of human rights defender Rong Chhun and other activists continue
CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, calls on the Cambodian authorities to drop the baseless charges against trade union activist and human rights defender Rong Chhun and to release him immediately and unconditionally. One year on from his arrest, his ongoing persecution highlights the unrelenting government repression against activists in the country and his ongoing detention during a pandemic is putting his life at risk.
Rong Chhun, the President of the independent Cambodian Confederation of Unions and a member of the Cambodia Watchdog Council, was arrested on 31 July 2020. He has been a vocal human rights defender and has long raised concerns about the plight of farmers’ and workers’ rights.
Chhun was charged with incitement under Article 495 of Cambodia’s Penal Code after he advocated for the land rights of villagers living near the Cambodia-Vietnam border. He was jailed at Prey Sar Prison and his trial began in January 2021. He has been denied bail amid an unprecedented COVID-19 outbreak in Cambodia’s prisons.
“The authorities must drop the politically-motivated charges that have been brought against Rong Chhun. Speaking up for local communities should never be a crime. The persecution against him exemplifies the systematic weaponization of the courts by the Hun Sen regime to target activists and silence all forms of dissent,” said Lisa Majumdar, CIVICUS Advocacy Officer.
Rong Chhun’s arrest last year sparked a wave of arrests in relation to planned protests to demand his release. Many of the activists arrested remain in detention and have also been denied bail. They include Hun Vannak, Chhoeun Daravy, Tha Lavy, Koet Saray, and Eng Malai (aka So Metta), who are members of Khmer Thavrak and Sar Kanika a former activist for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Others detained include Muong Sopheak and Mean Prommony, member and Vice-President of the Khmer Student Intelligent League Association (KSILA).
“It is extremely disturbing that activists in Cambodia have been denied bail despite calls by the UN to decongest prisons and release political prisoners during the pandemic. Holding them at this time poses a serious risk to their lives - and adds another layer of punishment for these activists. The international community must do more to stand side by side with Cambodia civil society and demand their release,” said Lisa Majumdar.
Research undertaken by the CIVICUS Monitor shows that laws are routinely misused in Cambodia to restrict civic freedoms, undermine and weaken civil society, and criminalize individual’s exercise of their right to freedom of expression. Human rights defenders, civil society activists and journalists are often subject to judicial harassment and legal action. They have also been ongoing police ill-treatment against the families and relatives of detained activists from the banned Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) who have been holding protests.
Civic space in Cambodia is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Cambodia: Blocking of music video another blow to freedom of expression
CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), and Asia Democracy Network (ADN) are appalled that the Cambodian authorities have ordered for a music video by a rapper that recounts a deadly government crackdown on a workers’ protest nine years ago to be removed from a social media page. We are also concerned about the questioning of civil society activists. Such actions highlight the systematic crackdown on freedom of expression under the Hun Sen regime.
According to reports, Cambodia’s culture ministryordered police to prevent the spread of the music video called “Blood Workers” citing its “inciting contents that can contribute to instability and social disorder.” The video, which had been posted on the human rights group LICADHO’s Facebook page, was by rapper Kea Sokun and shows footage of the 3 January 2014 protests by garment workers in Phnom Penh demanding an increase to the minimum wage, during which police shot four people dead, 38 wounded and a 15-year-old boy missing.
The cybercrime police alsoquestioned Am Sam Ath, operations director at LICADHO on 9 January over the NGO’s involvement in releasing the rap video. To avoid further legal action, LICADHOremoved the music video from Facebook and a censored page remains in its place. The group stated that the music video was not incitement and is protected speech under the Cambodian Constitution and they were saddened by this restriction on freedom of expression. LICADHO added that to this day, no one has been held accountable for the killings of workers Kim Phaleap, Sam Ravy, Yean Rithy and Pheng Kosal, or for Khem Sophath’s disappearance.
The authorities went further to question Tola Moeun from NGO Centre for Alliance of Labour and Human Rights (CENTRAL), Vorn Pao, president of the Independent Democratic Association of Informal Economy (IDEA) and Theng Savoeun from CCFC (Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Communities) about the video.
By blocking the video, the Cambodian authorities have once again chosen to silence freedom of expression and censor the work of civil society in their efforts to highlight human rights violations and seek accountability. Therefore, our organisations call on the government to halt its intimidation of civil society and to reverse this decision immediately which is clearly inconsistent with Cambodia’s international human rights obligations.
This is not the first time rapper Kea Sokun has been targeted. He wasarrested in September 2020 andspent a year in jail for incitement for a song he released called ‘Dey Khmer’ (‘Khmer Land’) which is about the politically sensitive topic of the Cambodian-Vietnamese border.
These actions are taking place in the context of an increasingly repressive civic space environment. In September 2022, CIVICUS published areport highlighting the ongoing persecution of activists, trade union activists, journalists, the opposition and others. Despite ongoing engagement and reporting by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia and multiple resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council and recommendations, the Cambodian government has shown no political will to undertake democratic or and civic space reforms, ahead of crucial 2023 elections.
Our organisations call on the international community to increase its pressure on the Hun Sen regime to respect and protect human rights, especially fundamental freedoms and halt their persecution of civil society activists and critics. Failure to do so will see the one-party regime further entrench itself in years to come.
Civic space in Cambodia is rated as repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor
Cambodia: Charges against journalists must be dropped
Joint Statement: Civil society organizations call for all baseless charges against journalists to be dropped
We, the undersigned media institutions and local and international civil society organizations call for charges against two former Radio Free Asia (RFA) journalists, Mr. Uon Chhin and Mr. Yeang Sothearin (known as Yeang Sochea Meta), to be dropped. We also call on the government to take immediate action to cease the harassment, arbitrary detention, threat and intimidation of, as well as discrimination against, the independent media.
The two former RFA journalists, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, were charged by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court with supplying a foreign state with information prejudicial to national defence, under Article 445 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code and with the alleged production of pornography under Article 39 of the Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation. The pair were arrested on 14 November 2017 and held in pre-trial detention for nine months. They were released on bail and placed under judicial supervision on 21 August 2018.
On 3 October 2019, the Court announced its decision to continue its investigation, despite the fact that there is a lack of credible evidence against the pair required to hold them criminally liable as per the burden of proof standards enshrined in Article 38 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia. Throughout the case of Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, the pair’s fair trial rights have not been upheld in line with national and international law.
We hope that the Appeal Court’s hearing on 23 December 2019, on the charges of production of pornography, as well as the hearing on 20 January 2020 on the charges of supplying a foreign state with information prejudicial to national defence, will provide justice for the pair and the baseless charges will be dropped. It should be noted that according to the summons the facts of the case are going to be heard for the first time in the Appeal Court, constituting a significant and concerning procedural irregularity. The case against Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin is one of many in which criminal charges have been used to silence independent and critical voices.
We also call for all charges against Mr. Aun Pheap, and Mr. Peter Zsombor, former Cambodia Daily journalists, to be dropped. On 28 August 2017, after conducting interviews with villagers regarding the commune council elections in Pate Commune, O'Yadav District, Ratanakiri Province, both were charged with incitement to commit a felony under Articles 494 and 495 of the Cambodian Criminal Code, and summoned to appear at a trial hearing on 25 December 2019. The interviews were conducted in their capacity as journalists for the Cambodia Daily, which has since been forced to close due to a tax requirement. The prosecutions serve to further threaten and intimidate other independent journalists.
On 19 November 2019 the Mondulkiri Provincial Court of First Instance summonsed Mr. Sath Chanboth, a journalist for Rasmei Kampuchea and Apsara TV, to appear in court on 2 December 2019, where he was questioned under charges of public defamation and incitement to commit a felony. The summons follows a lawsuit filed by Lieutenant Colonel Sophat Serivuthy, a soldier commander in Mondulkiri. We call for the judicial harassment of Sath Chanboth to be ceased.
In addition to the above cases, we express our concern over the prosecution of Mr. Rath Rott Mony, a translator for Russia Today, and former trade union leader, whose case further threatens the free media. He was accused of incitement to discriminate, and later sentenced to two years imprisonment and ordered to pay 70 million riels ($17,200) in compensation to plaintiffs for his role in supporting foreign journalists to produce a documentary on sex trafficking in Cambodia. His sentence was upheld in November 2019 by the Court of Appeal at a hearing where none of the plaintiffs or concerned parties were present, undermining the legitimacy of proceedings.
The harassment of journalists also takes other forms. A number of independent journalists have been denied the identification cards necessary to conduct their work. Additionally, some journalists report harassment from their employers for attempting to respect the principle of independence of the media.
We notice that a number of positive steps have been taken by the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) recently such as the grant of licence to the Voice of America’s bureau in Cambodia, allowing it to buy airtime from two local radio stations to broadcast its daily news programs, a meeting between Information Minister and RFA’s representative, as well as the decision to provide a licence to The Cambodian Journalists Alliance (CamboJA) on 09 September 2019, an independent journalists network. Despite these steps, journalists still face numerous barriers to conducting their work professionally and exercising their right to freedom of expression.
May Titthara, Executive Director of CamboJA, states that “to restore a better space for media, complaints against journalists and intimidations against journalists must be immediately ceased. The prosecution of Yeang Sothearin, Uon Chhin, Aun Pheap and recent criminal complaints against journalists must be dropped. Radio licenses which have been revoked should be renewed.”
Chak Sopheap, Executive Director of Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), adds: “Cases such as these form a pattern of arbitrary and retaliatory prosecutions of critical voices, including those of human rights defenders, journalists, union leaders, community representatives and the political opposition. We emphasise that journalism is not a crime and should not be treated as such. Respecting the right to freedom of expression and ensuring a space in which journalists can conduct their work freely and safely without fear of reprisal are important steps toward building a strong democracy and rule of law.”
We, the undersigned media institutions and local and international civil society organizations urge the RGC to accept our above requests and take concrete actions to ensure that the right to freedom of expression is respected and to create an environment in which independent media and journalists can perform their important role freely.
This joint statement is endorsed by:
- Cambodian Journalists Alliance (CamboJA)
- Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR)
- Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM)
- Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation (CFSWF)
- Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC)
- Minority Rights Organization (MIRO)
- Ponlok Khmer (PKH)
- Youth Resource Development Program (YRDP)
- Affiliated Network for Social Accountability (ANSA) Cambodia
- Community Legal Education Center (CLEC)
- Khmer Kampuchea Krom for Human Rights and Development Association (KKKHRDA)
- Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA)
- Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL)
- Cambodian Tourism Workers Union Federation (CTWUF)
- Equitable Cambodia (EC)
- Gender and Development for Cambodia (GADC)
- Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT)
- Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community (CCFC)
- International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX)
- Article 19
- FIDH, within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
- World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
- Building Community Voices (BCV)
- Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL)
- Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO)
- CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
- Alliance for Conflict Transformation (ACT)
- International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)
- Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
- International Commission of Jurists (ICJ)
- Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
- Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association (CITA)
- Amnesty International (AI)
- Cambodian Volunteers for Society (CVS)
- Cambodian Independent Civil-Servants Association (CICA)
- ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR)
- Cambodian Youth Network (CYN)
For more information, please contact:
Mr. May Titthara, Executive Director of CamboJA
Tel: +855 17 500 503 or email:
Ms. Chak Sopheap, Executive Director of CCHR,
Tel: +855 11 943 213 or email:
Cambodia: Civil society condemns human rights violation during election
The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) and CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation condemn the pattern of intimidation and retaliation against media workers, civil society, and political opponents in the run-up to, during, and after elections in Cambodia.
Cambodia: Conviction of environmental defenders another blow to civil society
From left to right: Long Kunthea, Thun Ratha and Phuon Keoreaksmey
The conviction of environmental defenders today highlights again the rapid deterioration of human rights and space for civil society in Cambodia, says global civil society alliance CIVICUS. The defenders sentenced must be released immediately and unconditionally.
Three environmental rights defenders from Mother Nature Cambodia – Phuon Keoreaksmey, Long Kunthea and Thun Ratha – were today sentenced by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to jail for 18 to 20 months after being convicted for ‘incitement’. Two others were found guilty in absentia.
Thun Ratha was handed 20 months in jail and a fine of 4 million riel (USD 1,000). Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, the group’s co-founder who has been deported from Cambodia, was tried in absentia and given the same sentence. Keoreaksmey, Kunthea and Chea Kunthin, a youth activist also tried in absentia, were given 18 months and the same four million riel fine. The court also issued arrest warrants against Gonzalez-Davidson and Kunthin and ordered the confiscation of materials belonging to them.
“The authorities have in recent years devoted ever more time and energy to weaken and dismantle the human rights movement in Cambodia. Those speaking up, even simply for protecting the environment, have faced blatant judicial harassment and at times outright violence. These convictions today are part of this trend,” said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS’s Asia researcher. “The international community must not remain silent at this injustice but stand side by side with Cambodia civil society and take action to protect its members.”
Research undertaken by the CIVICUS Monitor shows that laws are routinely misused in Cambodia to restrict civic freedoms, undermine civil society, and criminalize individual’s exercise of their right to freedom of expression. Human rights defenders, civil society activists and journalists and former members of the banned opposition party Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) continue to be targeted.
On 3 September 2020, Thun Ratha, Long Kunthea and Phoung Keorasmey, activists with environmental group Mother Nature Cambodia, were arbitrarily detained while planning a protest to call attention to the filling in of a lake, one of the last large lakes in Phnom Penh to create a military base and its impact on the biodiversity of the area. On 6th September 2020, the three were charged with ‘incitement to commit a felony or cause social unrest’ (articles 494 and 495 of the Cambodian Criminal Code) and placed in pre-trial detention. They were also denied bail.
Mother Nature Cambodia is an environmental rights organisation that advocates and campaigns locally and internationally for the preservation, promotion and protection of Cambodia's natural environment. As part of their work, the organisation monitors and challenges gross environmental violations and also raises awareness, educates and empowers people by providing them with training and financial support.
Cambodia: Disqualification of opposition party reveals government’s zero commitment to free and fair elections
The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) and CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation strongly condemn Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC)’s decision to bar the Candlelight Party (CP) - the country’s main opposition party–from contesting in the upcoming general election in July 2023.
Cambodia: Drop charges against union leader Rong Chhun and other activists
On Wednesday, prominent trade unionist and labour activist Rong Chhun will again appear before the trial court in Cambodia in one of a series of high-profile trials being carried out in Cambodia in an ongoing crackdown on activists which escalated significantly over the past year.
Rong Chhun, the President of the independent Cambodian Confederation of Unions and a member of the Cambodia Watchdog Council, was arrested on 31st July 2020. He has been a vocal human rights defender and has long raised concerns about the plight of farmers’ and workers’ rights.
Chhun was charged with incitement under Article 495 of Cambodia’s Penal Code for allegedly spreading ‘fake news’ after he appeared on a Radio Free Asia broadcast saying Vietnamese soldiers had placed border posts 500 meters into Cambodian territory and expelled villagers from their land.
Ahead of Rong Chhun’s hearing tomorrow, global civil society alliance CIVICUS calls on Cambodian authorities to drop the political motivated charges that have been brought against him and other activists. The authorities must also cease all forms of judicial harassment against them and release all those detained immediately
Rong Chhun’s arrest last year sparked a chilling wave of arrests in an escalation of attempts by the authorities to intimidate activists and silence all forms of dissent, highlighting the rapid deterioration of human rights in Cambodia.
A wave of arrests
On 10 August, activists Chhou Pheng, Chum Puthy and Sar Kanika, were charged with ‘incitement’ under Article 495 of the Criminal Code. On 13 August, two activists, Hun Vannak and Chhouen Daravy, from youth group Khmer Thavrak were also arrested after calling for Rong Chhun’s release. Other members of the youth group have been targeted by the authorities for planned protests; On 6 and 7 September, Buddhist monk Koet Saray and Tha Lavy were arrested while activist Eng Malai was picked up by authorities after leaving the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia, where she had raised security concerns. All three were charged with ‘incitement’.
The police also arrested Vice-President of the Khmer Student Intelligent League Association (KSILA), Mean Prommony, on 6 September for planning a protest while another member of KLSIA, Muong Sopheak was detained on 11 September.
On 3 September, Thun Ratha, Long Kunthea, and Phoung Keorasmey, activists with environmental group Mother Nature Cambodia, were arbitrarily detained while planning a peaceful march to call attention to the filling in of a Phnom Penh lake. They were charged with ‘incitement’ on 6 September.
Rapper Kea Sokun was arrested in Siem Reap on 10 September and charged with incitement under Articles 494 and 495 of the Cambodian Criminal Code. Sokun is understood to have been targeted as the result of a song he released in April called ‘Dey Khmer’ (‘Khmer Land’) which is about the politically sensitive topic of the Cambodian-Vietnamese border.
CIVICUS is also concerned that the Ministry of Interior is attempting to smear civil society groups Khmer Thavrak and Mother Nature Cambodia as unauthorised organisations. The Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations, passed in July 2015, has been widely criticised by grassroots groups, unions, NGOs and the United Nations as inconsistent with international human rights law. It criminalises all unregistered groups and makes registration dependent on an unclear and complex bureaucratic process.
Despite the risk of arrest and criminalisation, civil society activists have not backed down and continue to play a brave role in speaking up and exposing abuses by state and non-state actors.
The international community must stand by these activists and call on the Cambodian authorities to halt their systematic campaign of weaponizing the courts to silence critical voices.
Research undertaken by the CIVICUS Monitor shows that laws are routinely misused in Cambodia to restrict civic freedoms, undermine civil society, and criminalise individual’s exercise of their right to freedom of expression. Human rights defenders, civil society activists and journalists are often subject to judicial harassment and legal action.