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Cambodia: An Obligation To Protect Human Rights

Written By vibykhmer on Monday, September 7, 2009 | 7:04 AM

SCOOP New Zealand
Monday, 7 September 2009

Press Release: Asian Human Rights Commission

Cambodia: The State Has An Obligation To Protect Human Rights Defenders

Unlike many other countries, Cambodia is bound to international human rights obligations, including one towards its citizens who wish to participate in the promotion of human rights. Thus, under the Paris Peace Agreements of 1991 that ended the conflict in that country, “Cambodia undertakes”, among other things, “to support the right of all (its) citizens to undertake activities that would promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Since the conclusion of those agreements many such citizens have formed various NGOs with the purpose of doing precisely that work. Nowadays, there are several thousand NGOs that have registered but only a fraction of them are actually operational.

In reality, the Cambodian government has not honoured this particular international obligation as the registration of NGOs is a lengthy and complicated business, and requires the approval of officials at many levels of administration from the commune, district and provincial levels to many units higher up in the Ministry of Interior.

As to human rights defenders themselves, who are invariably affiliated to such NGOs, they not only have little support and protection from the government but also have at times received threats and intimidation from its agents. More often than not these agents have restricted their activities. The general attitude of the government is simply not particularly favourable to their work when NGOs and human rights defenders are invariably critical of the human rights situation in the country, an assessment which the government does not like at all.

Human rights defenders and their NGOs working closely with the grassroots people, have come to know the real situation and have been able to make interventions to help victims of human rights abuses. They have also been able to bring their cases to the attention of the relevant public authorities. It has now become a routine in the country that whenever people have some troubles related to human rights violations, the first thing they do is to call for help from the NGOs and inform sympathetic media so that they can highlight their cases. NGOs and human rights defenders have become part of the country’s social landscape.

For their respective part, the government has set up its own human rights committee, and the National Assembly (Lower House) and the Senate (Upper House) have likewise their respective human rights committees. Alleged victims of human rights violations have resort to these public institutions, invariably with the help from human rights defenders. But the effectiveness of these committees is debatable when, at times, they are not so keen to receive complaints from victims and fail to keep them informed of the progress of their investigations.

Recently, the government has shown more hostility to NGOs and human rights defenders. When reconfirmed in office after the July 2008 elections, Prime Minister Hun Sen prioritised the law on NGOs as one of the first three laws his government set out to enact, the other laws being the penal code and anti-corruption law. On both pieces of legislation the government has made frequent promises to enact. The reason behind the enactment of the NGO law was said to prevent the funding of NGOs by terrorist organisations. In September, 2008 Hun Sen asserted: “We have a concern that sometimes under so and so NGO, financial assistance has been provided for terrorist activities, take for instance the Al Um Quran under which Ham Bali hid himself in Cambodia.” But what has been forgotten was that the anti-Terrorism Law of 2007 (Chapter 11 on funding and aid for terrorism) has already adequately addressed this issue.

In March 2009, in response to a critical assessment of the human rights situation in Cambodia by the US State Department, Hun Sen accused NGOs of giving “misleading information” to the report and lashed out at them saying that, “human rights NGOs are working only for salaries; if they didn’t criticize the government, they would be out of work; they would also have to close their doors if there were no assistance from abroad.” He further asserted that in order to get money, “they have therefore to endeavour to fabricate stories to prove that the government has a poor human rights record.” The US and its various foundations are a major source of funding for Cambodian NGOs.

This year the NGO bashing has reached the mass media sympathizing with the government when TV channels have aired comedies to paint bad pictures, not only of donors but also the NGOs themselves. Representatives of donors were shown as being more concerned with womanizing than with evaluating the work of NGOs while NGOs were shown as being busy producing reports critical of the government to submit to their donors. Recently, the government’s hostility has gone as far seeing local and international NGOs and even international agencies, when critical of the human rights situation in Cambodia, as working for the opposition.

Human rights defenders have therefore not been secure in their work. In 2008, ADHOC, a leading human rights NGO reported 63 cases of threats of various forms, including arrests, against hundreds of defenders. These defenders comprised in majority, community representatives advocating the protection of their lands, human rights activists and trade unionists.

According to ADHOC, such threats were “an unprecedented phenomenon” and they had happened in almost every province and municipality. ADHOC asserted that public authorities took no action against the perpetrators and the judiciary seems to have connived with these threats. It said that, “In particular, threats against human rights defenders on the part of some judges and prosecutors became close to (being) systematic, and the Supreme Council of Magistracy (in charge of nominating and disciplining judges and prosecutors) and the Ministry of Justice failed to take disciplinary measures against judges and prosecutors committing such abuses.”

Very recently, apparently under pressure from powerful persons interested in the exploitation of the resources that are supposed to belong to the indigenous people in the area, according to the country’s land law, a judge recommended to ADHOC to remove from a member of its staff from Rattanakiri province. Pen Bonnar, is a human rights defender well known for his defence of the rights of the indigenous people against the encroachment of their local land and forests by the rich and powerful. That judge intimated that if Pen Bonnar was no longer under his jurisdiction he was not have to conduct the investigation into the charges of defamation, disinformation and incitement against him. ADHOC obliged and assigned Pen Bonnar to work in Phnom Penh.

By making obstacles to the work of human rights defenders and their respective NGOs, the Cambodian government has not only defied its own undertaking under the Paris Peace Agreements but also the country’s Constitution. Article 31 of this Constitution says, inter alia, that “The Kingdom of Cambodia shall recognize and respect human rights as stipulated in the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human rights, the covenants and conventions related to human rights, women’s and children’s rights.” The same Constitution, under its Article 35, guarantees its citizens’ “the right to participate actively in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the nation.”

The government’s NGO bashing and obstructions have affected the citizens’ constitutional right “to establish associations” (Art. 42). It has also violated their right mentioned above to participate in the political, economic, social and cultural rights of the country.

By working against NGOs and human rights defenders, the Cambodian government has also violated the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which the UN General Assembly adopted with its Resolution 53/144 dated 9 December 1998. This Declaration should have been more widely known and complied with, especially among government officials dealing with human rights defenders, as the field Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Phnom Penh widely disseminated it in the local language (Khmer) since 2006.

The work and activities of NGOs and human rights defenders is in conformity with this Declaration to promote and protect universally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms. However, the Cambodian government should do its part and fulfil more of its responsibilities. In particular, it should provide protection to all human rights defenders as stipulated under Art 12 (2) of the Declaration:

"2. The State shall take all necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competent authorities of everyone, individually and in association with others, against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or her legitimate exercise of the rights referred to in the present Declaration.”
The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) strongly urges the Cambodian government to honour all its international human rights obligations, and in particular, to support the right of all its citizens, human rights defenders and NGOs to undertake activities that promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cambodia. The government and its agents must provide adequate protection to all human rights defenders.

About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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