Human rights defenders face ’shrinking space’ in Cambodia

en fr

Paris - Geneva, September 2, 2010. Cambodians have faced increasingly severe restrictions on their freedom of expression since 2008, according to a new report by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.

The report, “CAMBODIA: Freedoms of expression, association and assembly: A shrinking space”, is the result of an international fact-finding mission carried out in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Ratanakiri (Cambodia), from February 14 to 24, 2010. The Observatory is a joint programme of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) [1].

The Observatory found that trade union leaders, land rights activists and journalists have faced among the worst human rights violations, facing new legal restrictions and fierce retaliation for documenting and denouncing abuses. The trade union movement, for example, remains shaken by the assassination of three leaders of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC) in 2004 and 2007 - Messrs. Chea Vichea (2004), Ros Sovannareth (2004) and Hy Vuthy (2007). Their real assassins have yet to be brought to justice, and police investigations are at an apparent standstill.

Meanwhile, as of December 8, 2009, 52 land rights activists were detained in Cambodia’s prisons – most on trumped-up charges designed to remove them from their role as community leaders. Countless others have suffered forced evictions and harassment.

“Time and again we see the same pattern – those who dare to speak out against injustice are arrested, imprisoned and intimidated”, said Souhayr Belhassen, FIDH President. “The message to human rights defenders is clear: Be quiet, or the Government will forcibly silence you.”

The Government has also stepped up activity on the legislative front, enacting and proposing a trio of new laws which dramatically reduce space for freedoms of expression, assembly and association.

The Law on Peaceful Demonstrations, which places excessive restrictions on the freedom of assembly, was promulgated on December 5, 2009 and finalised without consultation of the civil society. The vague terms of the law give to the authorities sweeping discretion to deny Cambodians permission to peacefully assemble and protest. The Observatory believes that the law is inconsistent with Cambodia’s Constitution and the country’s international human rights obligations.

“The new law is worrisome because authorities often refuse to authorise demonstrations or delay granting authorisation until the eleventh hour, even though the letter of the law only contains notification requirements”, said Eric Sottas, OMCT Secretary-General. “It is yet another tool for the Government to silence its critics” he added.

The Government is also in the process of drafting a new law on trade unions and a law on NGOs and Associations. Local groups fear that these new laws are intended to restrict the lawful activities of Cambodian civil society organisations. All three laws were highlighted as a priority by Prime Minister Hun Sen in public statements, indicating that the current push was orchestrated at the very highest levels of Government.

In view of the information provided in the report, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders recommends to the authorities of Cambodia:
 to guarantee in all circumstances the physical and psychological integrity of all human rights defenders in Cambodia;
 to put an end to all acts of harassment, including at the judicial level, against human rights defenders;
 to comply with the Cambodian Constitution and the international and regional instruments ratified by Cambodia as well as with the provisions of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 9, 1998;
 to issue an invitation to the Special Rapporteur of the UN on the situation of human rights defenders so that she visits the country.

Read more