Crackdown on human rights weighs on Cambodia

Against the backdrop of a month of fierce protests, the worst state violence in Cambodia for 15 years, and an escalating crackdown on protesting workers, the United Nations this week launched its second Universal Periodical Review (UPR) of the country's human rights record.
All UN members undergo the process every four years, and while the recommendations are non-binding, the review does at least provide a platform for other member countries to express their concerns.
Indeed, 91 recommendations were made following the last review in 2009 – although Cambodia has only made "progress" in implementing them, the UN said in a 24-page document reviewing the follow-up actions.
But events so far this year have caused many to step up their questioning on its commitment to reform.
Even UN agency the International Labour Organization (ILO) this week joined calls for an end to continuing violence in Cambodia, saying it is "deeply disturbed" by reports of another crackdown on protesting workers.
And the UN human rights envoy in Cambodia, Professor Surya Subedi, has expressed concern at the "violence and excessive force" used against garment workers at the beginning of the year.
He added that the move "cast doubts" on any expectations that democracy in Cambodia was maturing and "marked a worrying change" in the government's response to public protests.
Garment worker unrest
Events came to a head just before Christmas, when garment workers walked out in a mass call to double the minimum wage from US$80 to $160 with immediate effect. The government, however, has proposed incremental rises to $160 over the next five years.
The garment worker protests also added fuel to political demonstrations calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Hun Sen and a re-run of July's election amid allegations of vote-rigging.
Escalating violence against the protestors led to the deaths of at least four people in early January, the arrest of 23 workers, and the dismissal of hundreds more.
And the clashes have continued, the most recent of which saw at least eight people injured at a rally on Sunday (26 January), which was organised by nine unions and associations calling for the release of the 23 arrested workers.
The human rights situation in Cambodia "worsened significantly" from 2009 th resonance given that the clothing industry is the largest manufacturing sector in Cambodia, with annual exports of US$5bn – and that, through the long-running ILO's Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) monitoring programme, the country had been held up as a standard-bearer for apparel workers' rights.
Reputation wearing thin
However, this reputation has been accused of wearing thin for some time. A report last year by the Worker Rights Consortium and Stanford Law School suggested that despite the BFC's operations in Cambodia, there have been ongoing declines in wage levels and basic job security during the past 11 years.
With the situation continuing to deteriorate, the need to implement reforms is even more acute and pressing than ever. But of course it remains unclear what it will actually take to elicit change.
Among the issues raised by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva this week were "recent attacks on activists, union members and journalists and violations of freedom of assembly and association" and the "recent ban on peaceful assemblies."
The body recommended that Cambodia adopt legislative measures to "promote the enjoyment of freedom of expression in order to protect opposition party members, journalists and human rights defenders from arbitrary arrests and to lift all restrictions to peaceful demonstrations."
It is also seeking a review of "all legal cases against individuals who are detained under criminal or judicial investigation.
But not only are the recommendations non-binding, their implementation is the responsibility of the state concerned – so there is a real danger the whole exercise turns into nothing more than a hollow request falling on deaf ears.