CAMBODIA: Closing civic space for human rights defenders

08/07/2019
Statement

Paris-Geneva, July 8, 2019 - Upon return from a fact-finding mission in Cambodia, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, an FIDH-OMCT partnership, expresses its utmost concern over the increasingly shrinking civic space for human rights defenders in the country.

Over the past months, human rights defenders in Cambodia have been subject to constant acts of harassment from the Government that has sought to link them to a fictitious “colour revolution”, allegedly led by the former political opposition. Civil society space has further closed since the Government initiated its political crackdown ahead of the July 2018 general election, and defenders currently operate in a repressive environment that is unprecedented in Cambodia’s recent history. The main obstacles for the exercise of defenders’ work include the harassment of dissenting voices including NGOs and media outlets and journalists, an increasingly oppressive security presence and restrictive legal amendments.

In 2017 and 2018, as Cambodia’s multi-party democracy was being dismantled,independent civil society was further repressed and sentenced through abusive charges and judicial processes. For instance, in September 2018,four staff members from the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) - one of Cambodia’s most prominent human rights NGO - were convicted of “bribery”. Moreover, the few remaining independent media outlets were shut down or sharply curtailed through the abuse of tax laws and administrative licensing procedures. The media outlets affected by these measures included the two independent English-language newspapers, the Cambodia Daily and the Phnom Penh Post, as well as Khmer-language radio programmes from Voice of America, Radio Free Asia (RFA), and Voice of Democracy. Messrs. Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, two former RFA journalists, were arrested on November 14, 2017, two months after RFA shuttered its Cambodia operations. They were charged under Article 445 of the Criminal Code, for providing “information to foreign interests detrimental to national security”. After their release on bail almost a year later on August 21, 2018, they were placed under court supervision, which bars them from changing their addresses or travelling abroad. On June 21, 2019, they lost an appeal that sought to have their court supervision lifted. However, the court clarified that the two no longer need to report to the police every month. The charges against them are still pending, and both face up to 15 years in jail, if convicted.

State interference in, and monitoring of, human rights activities has also become a systematic practice, which has had a chilling effect on civil society. Although Notice No. 175, a regulation requiring any group, such as NGOs, to inform local authorities three days before any gathering or event, was repealed by the Interior Minister on November 27, 2018, scores of human rights defenders and other groups have continued to be monitored and questioned by local authorities any time they have held, or intended to hold, human rights trainings or workshops. Local authorities’ interference in such gatherings have included the review of lists of participants and agendas, as well as authorities’ physical presence during the events. In an attempt to intimidate civil society, the Government has increasingly deployed armed tactical police on the occasion of larger public human rights assemblies, in particular International Human Rights Day, International Women’s Rights Day, and International Labour Day. For International Labour Day in Phnom Penh on May 1, 2019, around 500 mixed security forces were deployed while workers and civil society members gathered at both the Government’s Council for the Development of Cambodia as well as “Freedom Park”, an area several kilometres from the city centre designated by the authorities for such assemblies. On that day, municipal authorities stopped workers from marching to the National Assembly, and instead allowed for a limited march around the temple Wat Phnom in the presence of security officials. For International Women’s Rights Day on March 8, 2019, about 500 demonstrators, mostly representatives of local unions and NGOs, gathered in Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium, where mixed security forces, including police officers equipped with military-style tactical gear, physically trapped them inside the stadium and prevented them from leaving or joining other demonstrators outside. A similarly large security presence was deployed during International Human Rights Day on December 10, 2018, when a group of defenders and NGOs participated in a peaceful assembly at “Freedom Park”. After the Phnom Penh Municipality threatened legal action against the organisers of the event, citing vague concerns about “security and public order”, hundreds of security forces - many of them wearing tactical gear and crash helmets - surrounded “Freedom Park”. The security forces outnumbered participants, a show of force that could only be intended to intimidate protesters.

Land and environmental human rights defenders are particularly subjected to threats and harassment in Cambodia. One of the most emblematic case is the one of Ms. Tep Vanny , a land rights defender and Boeung Kak community representative, who was finally released in August 2018after being detained for 735 days in relation to a peaceful protest she attended in 2013. Moreover, security forces, including military soldiers, have also been deployed in land conflicts, a trend that has resulted in several cases of disproportionate and unnecessary force being used against those defending their land. In January 2019, military soldiers attacked a community facing eviction in Preah Vihear Province, locked in a land conflict with a Cambodian rubber company that was granted a land concession of more than 8,500 hectares. The farmers were arrested and physically assaulted by soldiers who had been hired by the company as security guards. One of the community’s representatives, Mr. Sum Meun, was beaten and, following his arrest, disappeared for two months, later reappearing in a state of shock and still suffering from injuries related to his beating.

State control has similarly increased online, in an attempt to shrink civic space on the web. On May 2, 2018, the Cambodian Government ordered all internet service providers to have their customers’ traffic pass through a State-owned data management centre at Telecom Cambodia, and the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications was ordered to “block or close” websites and social media pages that had “illegal [content] ... considered as incitement, breaking solidarity, discrimination, create turmoil by will, leading to undermine national security, and public interests and social order”. These orders stem from the 2015 Law on Telecommunications, a piece of legislation that gives the Government broad authority to monitor and police private and public communications, and in such a context, several defenders have increasingly resorted to self-censorship due to a fear of reprisals. The 2015 Law and related orders could soon be coupled with a draft Cybercrime Bill, which in previous versions contained vague provisions criminalising “slanderous” comments against the Government or officials made online.

The rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression protected under international law are systematically violated in Cambodia, and human rights defenders are increasingly perceived as threats rather than legitimate actors of change by the authorities. It is high time for the Cambodian Government to acknowledge the positive role of human rights defenders for the development of the country, and to reopen the space for civil society ”, the Observatory said today.

Another set of laws that regulate NGOs and trade union activities have placed undue restrictions and burdens on defenders by undermining their right to freedom of association.

The Law on Trade Unions (LTU), adopted in May 2016, established a bureaucratic and burdensome process to register unions, setting up barriers intended to obstruct activities related to labour rights. Registration is required for any union to operate, otherwise its activity is deemed illegal under the above-mentioned law. A registration form requires extensive information, including family information of a union’s leadership, their biographies, and documents such as social security IDs and labour book registrations, which are typically held by factory management and thus difficult to access. Local unions have reported that government authorities regularly deny their registrations for arbitrary reasons, such as minor spelling errors. In addition, the LTU allows for the dissolution of a union if one of its leaders is convicted of a crime. In December 2018, six union leaders - Messrs. Ath Thorn, Chea Mony, Mam Nhim, Pav Sina, Rong Chhun, and Yang Sophorn - were convicted and handed suspended prison sentences for their alleged role in a protest over the minimum wage in 2013.

Much like the LTU, the 2015 Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations (LANGO) gives the Government overly broad powers that require all groups and associations to register before conducting any activities, determines a mandatory registration process, and gives the Ministry of Interior a wide range of powers to curtail freedoms of association and peaceful assembly. In September 2017, the Ministry of Interior used the LANGO to suspend one of the largest local land rights NGOs, Equitable Cambodia, alleging that the NGO had violated the reporting requirements stipulated in the LANGO. Equitable Cambodia was only able to resume operations in February 2018, following intense public international pressure.

If the Government is serious about its commitment to improve the living conditions of the Cambodian people, it should stop targeting defenders, and recognise them as key actors in the improvement of Cambodia’s dire human rights record ” , the Observatory concluded.

Context:

From June 10 to June 20, 2019, the Observatory carried out a fact-finding mission to Cambodia visiting Phnom Penh, Kompong Chhnang, Battambang, Banteacy Meanchey, and Siem Reap provinces. The mission met with a wide-range of human rights defenders including land and environmental rights defenders, women’s rights defenders, media activists, as well as civil and political rights defenders. The objective of the mission was to analyse to what extent civil society space has shrunk in the lead-up to, during, and after the 2018 general election, assess the main obstacles currently affecting civil society activities in the country, and identify causes and specific events attesting the shrinking of civic space. A fact-finding mission report will be published by the end of 2019.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (the Observatory) is a partnership created in 1997 by the FIDH and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and aims to intervene to prevent or remedy concrete situations of repression against human rights defenders. FIDH and OMCT are both members of ProtectDefenders.eu, the European Union mechanism for human rights defenders implemented by international civil society.

For more information, please contact:

FIDH: Samuel Hanryon (French, English): + 33 6 72 28 42 94
OMCT: Delphine Reculeau (French, English): + 41 22 809 49 39

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