Cambodia’s Defense of Rights Record at UN Review Slammed

Foreign donors should push Cambodia’s government to end its human rights abuses as part of its bid to maintain political control of the nation, a rights group said Wednesday, after Phnom Penh allegedly snubbed recommendations by foreign governments to improve the country’s rights record.

Foreign donors should push Cambodia’s government to end its human rights abuses as part of its bid to maintain political control of the nation, a rights group said Wednesday, after Phnom Penh allegedly snubbed recommendations by foreign governments to improve the country’s rights record.

Representatives of foreign governments proposed several areas of improvement for Cambodia during the country’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) session on June 26 at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva—a rights review mechanism through which all U.N. member states are examined every four years.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said that Cambodia “brushed aside calls … to reverse its crackdown on human rights and reform its abusive policies and practices.”

It called on the country’s international donors to “redouble their pressure” to take Phnom Penh to task for its abuses.

“Faced with an upsurge in demands for fundamental changes to ensure respect for human rights, the government of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has instead dug in his heels,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

“The international community should not acquiesce to the Cambodian government’s use of political violence, imprisonment of opponents on politically motivated charges, torture, and restrictions on free speech and public assembly,” he said.

Human Rights Watch said that Cambodia had merely “noted” that it had received recommendations addressing rights violations at the UPR session, and “deflected” calls to end the suspension of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and actions to ensure media and Internet freedom.

It also avoided addressing calls to end the detention and imprisonment of people who exercise their right to the freedom of expression, the group said.

During a strike by Cambodian garment workers in January, police opened fire, leaving five people dead and scores wounded.

A day later, security forces violently dispersed supporters of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) from Freedom Park in the capital Phnom Penh and closed the site, which has been the focus of protests against Hun Sen’s rule following disputed elections last year.

Freedom Park remains closed to political protesters, despite Hun Sen’s assurances that a ban on political protests would be lifted.

Human Rights Watch said that Cambodia disregarded other recommendations at the session, including that the country end unfair trials, and take actions to create a more favorable human rights environment for opposition party members, human rights defenders, journalists, and activists.

The country “sidestepped” demands to investigate recent incidents of “excessive use of fatal force” by security units, end impunity for such acts, and undertake reforms to put an end to torture, the statement said.

Cambodia “snubbed” proposals that it protect land rights, as stipulated in its constitution, and cooperate more fully with U.N. rights experts and mechanisms, it said.

According to the rights group, Cambodia also reneged on its earlier acceptance of four recommendations, including one calling on it specifically “to protect free and independent media” and three relating to the education of children.

Government explanation

In its explanation of the government’s position, Cambodia’s mission to the U.N. said it had withheld acceptance of the noted recommendations because they might not “reflect the situation on the ground,” while it said the rejected proposals were “contrary to the laws and Constitution of Cambodia.”

Human Rights Watch quoted Chheang Vun, a spokesman for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), a day after the session as saying that certain recommendations by other U.N. member states were rejected as they “cannot be applied in Cambodia, because Cambodian society is not theirs.”

He said Cambodia opposed suggestions that would force “state institutions to become barricaded” off from acting against other parties or individuals protesting against the government.

Adams said that Cambodia’s position at the UPR shed light on the Hun Sen’s approach to human rights in the country and reiterated his call on the international community to pressure the government to comply with U.N. recommendations.

“Prime Minister Hun Sen and those speaking on his behalf have shown their true colors in this process, ignoring serious recommendations and falling back on a false exceptionalism to justify their continued rights abuses,” Adams said.

“Foreign donors who give so much assistance to Cambodia should jointly use their influence to push for the government to end its reliance on human rights violations to control the country.”

‘Attack on sovereignty’

Council of Ministers Secretary of State and spokesman Phay Siphan dismissed the Human Rights Watch statement, calling it an “attack” on the nation’s sovereignty.

“This is not the first time we’ve seen language urging donors to cut aid to the country—they have been saying this for a long time,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.

“Nonetheless, donors have continued to increase their aid to Cambodia. So we feel that Human Right Watch’s statement is an attack against Cambodia’s sovereignty and the donors’ decision [to give aid].”

The government’s Deputy Human Rights Committee Chairman Mok Sambath refused to comment on the report, saying he had not read it.

Defense of rights record

In January, the Cambodian government defended its human rights record in a 24-page document presented at a UPR, reviewing the steps it said it had taken over the years to upgrade human rights, but offering no explanation on the crackdown that month on peaceful protests.

A representative from Britain said the use of live ammunition by Cambodian security forces during the Jan. 3 crackdown on workers’ strikes “cannot be justified,” calling for a “credible inquiry” on the incident.

The Swedish representative cited allegations of fraud in the July 2013 elections in which Hun Sen’s CPP was declared the winner, calling for electoral and other reforms to protect human rights.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch had said that through the end of 2013, it found that “the human rights situation in the country had worsened significantly since its last [UPR] in 2009.”