Cambodian civil society needs international support

42nd Session of the UN Human Rights Council
Joint statement during interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Cambodia

CIVICUS and the Cambodian Center for Human Rights welcome the Special Rapporteur’s report. We are alarmed that the situation of civic space in the country is worsening, with individuals and organisations attacked for raising human rights abuses, while Cambodians face ever-decreasing levels of freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly.

In July this year, authorities detained two youth activists, Kong Raya and Soung Neakpoan, who participated in a commemoration ceremony on the third anniversary of the murder of prominent political commentator Kem Ley in Phnom Penh. Other peaceful protests have been blocked or restricted. In recent weeks, two local human rights organizations – LICADHO and Samakum Teang Tnaut STT – were called in for questioning by the government after releasing a report on the human rights impact of micro-finance loans; the director of a third CSO – Transparency International Cambodia – was also called in for separate comments he made in a newspaper.

We echo the Special Rapporteur’s comments that ‘judicial institutions are themselves key to ensuring accountability in society’. Given this, we are dismayed that such institutions continue to be used by the government to silence human rights defenders and others who dissent. Such lack of justice at the national level calls for heightened international scrutiny.

The dissolution of the main opposition party in 2018 has effectively transformed the country into a one-party state and undermines democratic space. At least 150 opposition activists have been detained or otherwise judicially harassed since 2018, six in the last week alone.

As highlighted by the Special Rapporteur, Cambodia’s press freedom indices continues to fall. Independent media outlets perceived as critical towards the government were subject to a severe crackdown in 2017 and 2018 through threats and sanctions including shutdowns, and the environment for independent media remains fraught with danger. Two RFA journalists, Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin, face up to 16 years in prison for baseless espionage charges. Their verdict is pending.

Cambodia participated in the third cycle of the UPR process earlier this year, committing to various human rights reforms. During its review, CSOs highlighted that this should be the first step towards improving the deteriorating human rights situation. Developments on the ground since these commitments were made does not bode well for their fulfillment.

With independent media all but quashed and civic space under threat, international scrutiny is all the more urgent. At a minimum, the mandate of the special rapporteur must be renewed. But to see real change in Cambodia, the situation merits enhanced monitoring and reporting from the High Commissioner of Human Rights, to outline benchmarks the government must meet to comply with its international human rights obligations.

Cambodian civil society deserves, and needs, international support. We ask the Special Rapporteur where the international community, including the Council, can exert pressure in order to ensure a substantive improvement of civic space, and whether she sees any avenue for Cambodia’s human rights record to improve substantively, given its current political framework.

We also use this opportunity to call on the Human Rights Council to pass by consensus the resolution on Cambodia tabled during this Session.