Long road ahead for Cambodian human rights

Quarreling political factions have reached a deal ending a year-long crisis, but human rights concerns continue.

Juliette Rousselot Last updated: 04 Sep 2014 10:22

Cambodia’s two main political parties, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and Sam Rainsy’s opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP),  signed an agreement  on July 22 heralding the end of a year-long political crisis.

The deal includes replacing the controversial National Election Committee with a new institution that will include four members each from the CPP and CNRP, and a ninth independent member, Dr Pung Chiv Kek, president of the human rights organisation LICADHO.

In a statement released by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi noted the agreement “only marks the beginning of the true work of reforming the state institutions”, and expressed hope that reforms would be undertaken on “principled grounds”, hinting they might be guided by political interests rather than a desire to improve the human-rights situation.

‘Tenuous human rights situation’

The deal comes in the midst of an increasingly tenuous human rights situation. Just a week earlier, a demonstration -spearheaded by several key CNRP leaders aimed to “retake” Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park –  turned violent . During the clash several municipal security guards were severely beaten by protesters, in retribution for the excessive violence used by security forces over the past year, resulting in the arrest of four CNRP elected Members of Parliament .

By the next day, eight CNRP lawmakers and one party activist were charged with leading an insurrectional movement, inciting to commit a felony, and instigating others to commit acts of violence. The charges illustrated what many continue to see as deteriorating human rights in the country.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, said the “human rights situation continues to worsen because persons with power get away with a host of actions that include killing activists, seizing land, busting up labour unions, attacking peaceful protesters with deadly force, and rounding up people and placing them in prisons on trumped up charges or administratively committing them to abusive detention centres “.

Over the past year, at least six people were shot dead by the security forces during protests, and dozens injured. In early January, a massive government crackdown on protests by garment workers in Phnom Penh led to 23 people being arrested. The trial was ultimately criticised by many non-governmental organistions as being a farce.

Meanwhile, during the opposition’s 10-month boycott of parliament, CPP parliamentarians took significant steps towards passing, re-introducing and drafting new laws, including the Cybercrime Law and three judicial reform laws – all of which could negatively impact human rights and freedoms. The International Commission of Jurists lambasted the move saying”these bills don’t ‘reform’ the judiciary in any positive ways, instead they actually hurt the judiciary’s independence and its status as a separate and equal branch of the Cambodian government”.

Political deal doesn’t address human rights

Although many have, by and large,  expressed relief at seeing the political deadlock finally broken, the agreement between the opposing parties remains far from satisfactory. One of the main issues with the deal is that there is “hardly any mention of human rights [and that it] will not have a major impact on the situation of human rights now or in the future,”  Ou Virak, chair of the Board of Directors of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, told Al Jazeera.

Steadfast within the debate on human rights is the tenuous issue of minimum wage. In a country where still 20.5 percent of the population lives on less than $1.15 per day, according to a 2013 World Bank Report , low salaries, coupled with insufficient training and job opportunities, remain a hurdle to development. The topic of minimum wage for garment factory workers, an issue that concerns about 400,000 people and which the opposition has campaigned on over the past year, has also been left out of the political deal.

According to Moeun Tola, head of the Labor Program at the Community Legal Education Center, “garment workers have been disappointed since the election and do not expect to see an increase in the minimum wage as long as the CPP is in power”.

The lack of security of land and property has also affected more than half a million people, according to the Cambodian human rights organisation  LICADHO . The issue remains particularly problematic in a country where a majority of the population remains dependent on land for their income. While evictions are not necessarily illegal, the lack of compensation for affected communities has exacerbated the problem.

” The loss of a plot of land affects the ability of the residents to earn income, to ensure the well-being and education of the family, and to protect its members from harm and violence,” Sia Phearum, director of the Housing Rights Task Force, told Al Jazeera.

“A forced eviction generates food insecurity, increases poverty, the rate of homelessness, as well as migration from rural to urban areas or to foreign countries.”

In addition, sexual and gender-based violence remains high. A  study released last year by the United Nations found one-in-five Cambodian men had committed rape, with alarmingly high rates of gang-rapes.

The level of representation of women in politics remains low; statistics from last year’s elections indicate that only 22.55 percent of candidates were women.

While the lack of independence of the judicial system is apparent during high-profile trials, violations of fair trial rights occur at all levels of the court system. Data recently released shows in 81.6 percent of hearings at the Court of Appeal, defendants were neither informed of nor explained their rights to legal representation.

Many other problems continue to underpin the human rights situation, such as deforestation and its impact on indigenous communities; racism and ethnic hatred; prison conditions; access to quality education; malnutrition; and discrimination against people with disabilities and sexual minorities. Endemic corruption also persists. Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perception Index ranks Cambodia 160 out of 177 countries.

What’s next?

The question remains “whether the CPP allows the CNRP to play an effective political opposition role, for instance as a rights watchdog role in the National Assembly by calling ministers and other government officials to publicly testify and account for their policies and their actions”, said Robertson. “There are serious doubts that the National Assembly will be permitted to play an important role as a checks-and-balances role on the government’s power.”

However, with institutional reform cited by many as a key step towards increasing transparency, the distribution of the National Assembly’s commissions equally between each party and the appointment of a human rights leader to the NEC are seen as positive steps forward. “The deal allows for the opposition to join parliament and put forward their own policies,” Virak told Al Jazeera.

However, Mu Sochua, a CNRP parliamentarian and one of Cambodia’s most prominent female politicians, sees the current situation as a “new culture of real bi-partisanship in parliament,” saying she will work across “party lines ” to improve human rights in the country.

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SOURCE www.aljazeera.com