Cambodia: Human rights situation remains critical - CIVICUS interview with Chak Sopheap (CCHR)

ChakSopheapCIVICUS speaks to Ms. Chak Sopheap, Executive Director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), about ongoing restrictions on civil society organizations and human rights defenders in Cambodia since general elections held in 2013.

1. Following contested general elections in July 2013 the government appeared to escalate repression of critical voices. How would you describe the overall environment for independent civil society in Cambodia today?

The overall environment for civil society in Cambodia remains critical, especially for grassroots organizations that work in the provinces. Throughout Cambodia, NGO representatives, human rights defenders and other activists continue to be threatened and harassed by local authorities and private security guards as a result of their work. Judicial harassment, including through the misuse of criminal charges as well as the abuse of provisional detention, also remains a serious concern and a challenge for independent civil society in Cambodia.

The situation is aggravated by the high level of corruption and collusion between the authorities and influential private actors. For example, in May 2014, the Project Coordinator of CCHR’s Land Reform Project was intimidated and received death threats while conducting a visit at the site of a land dispute located in Sangkat Boeung Kak I, Phnom Penh. Mr. Sophath was pushed, threated and verbally attacked by a group of approximately six civilians, who are known to work as security guards for the powerful Khun Sear Company.

In another emblematic case, staff members of Equality Cambodia (EC), a local NGO working on land issues, were repeatedly threatened and harassed. In one instance, provincial authorities prevented two EC staff from conducting interviews in Bos village. The researchers were taken to the provincial police station where Meg Fukuzawa, a foreign consultant, was held overnight in police custody before being transported back to Phnom Penh by armed escort. Authorities claimed that the team was removed from the field for their own safety and because Ms. Fukuzawa did not have her original passport on hand. In October 2014, the police again prevented an EC research team from conducting interviews, this time at Bak Nim village, claiming that EC had to give notice to the local authorities and seek permission from the Provincial Governor to continue the interviews.

2. As part of this campaign, the government introduced or resuscitated a number of restrictive laws which would undermine fundamental civil liberties in the country. Can you tell us a bit about the potential impact of these laws and to what extent the government has engaged independent civil society to address shortcomings in the laws?

Secrecy and lack of transparency continue to characterize the lawmaking process in Cambodia. In 2014, three draft laws relating to the judiciary, which seriously affect the independence of the judiciary in violation of the basic principle of the separation of powers, were promulgated. The draft laws were not published and shared with civil society or the general public. Furthermore, as the National Assembly had decided to boycott, the laws were approved in only a couple of hours with no amendment or review.

In May 2012, the Royal Government of Cambodia announced the drafting of Cambodia’s first Cyber Crime Law. CCHR attempted to acquire a copy, but encountered vague, noncommittal answers when contacting members of the government working on the draft.  While draft was then leaked in April 2014, the RGC has refused to publicly release an official version of the draft yet. The government’s unwillingness to disclose information about the drafting of laws prevents civil society, and those who will be directly affected by them, to give input or contribute to their development. The highly controversial draft cyber law contains several provisions which, if passed as such, could severely restrict freedom of expression online, and possibly result in self-censorship. On 11 December 2014, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan reportedly stated that the Cybercrime Law had been “scrapped,” as it “was not a priority”. However, this has yet to be officially confirmed.

Moreover, a senior ruling party lawmaker and National Assembly spokesman reportedly said that the fourth draft of the ‘Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations,’ (“LANGO”) would shortly be introduced. The adoption of the LANGO would introduce onerous registration procedures and increased government control of NGOs. If the law is adopted, it would have serious consequences for NGOs like CCHR who regularly challenge the government and draw negative attention to government practices.

In view of past episodes, a speedy adoption of these draft laws without consultation with civil society remains a major risk and a serious challenge to fundamental freedoms.

3. What actions are civil society groups and activists taking to tackle these issues and support the creation of a more enabling environment for civil society in the country?
Civil society groups and activists have adopted a multidimensional approach, ranging from engagement with the authorities to campaigning and awareness raising activities. Nevertheless engaging directly with the government remains a very complex issue in Cambodia, and creating a more enabling environment for civil society is a long-term goal.

While government and local authorities are generally reluctant to cooperate with civil society, NGOs have tried on a regular basis to engage with the government in a cooperative rather than confrontational manner. Authorities are often invited to attend meetings, to participate in workshops or radio talk shows. CSOs and activists have also created networks and organized outreach activities in order to raise public awareness and engage ordinary citizens on controversial critical issues, including draft legislation, land disputes, judicial harassment and fair trial rights.

4. How can regional and international civil society groups offer support to civil society in Cambodian?
Due to the improvements registered in the country over the last few years and the worsening situation in other countries in the region, international attention on Cambodia is slowly fading. The situation of human rights though remains critical and civil society groups have today an even more central role. Support from and cooperation with international actors, both the UN and INGOs, thus play a significant part in safeguarding a meaningful space for Cambodian civil society groups to operate.

In this framework, there are different types of support that international and regional groups could offer, including capacity building support, especially on project management, lobbying and advocacy skills, financial support to local CSOs and promotion of the activities organized by local activists and civil society groups.

About CCHR:
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) is a leading non-aligned, independent, non-governmental organization that works to promote and protect democracy and respect for human rights – primarily civil and political rights - in Cambodia. We empower civil society to claim its rights and drive change; and through detailed research and analysis we develop innovative policy, and advocate for its implementation.