Professor Rhona Smith was appointed as Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia by the United Nations Human Rights Council in March 2015 and completed her fourth official mission to the country on Aug. 18. During her 10-day visit, the envoy met with a wide range of stakeholders throughout society, including government officials, civil society organizations, political party leadership, and victims of human rights abuse in several provinces. At the end of her trip, she spoke with Sok Ry Sum of RFA’s Khmer Service about human rights, limits on the activities of civil society groups, and the political climate in Cambodia ahead of next year’s general elections:
Q: The years 2016 and 2017 are seen as not good years for human rights in Cambodia … what can you do or say to reassure human rights workers so that they can continue to do their work without so much fear for their safety?
A: With respect to civil society organizations, nongovernmental organizations and human rights defenders, it’s important to note that they have a legal right in terms of international human rights law to monitor, investigate and to stand up for human rights standards. It’s certainly the case that a number of civil society workers and nongovernmental organizations, as well as others, have reported to me concerns about the increasing repression they feel through the application of a wide range of different laws against them. There have also been a number of concerns that nongovernmental organizations are required to report to commune and district authorities all aspects of their activities, including who is attending educational training. This is contrary to the Ministry of Interior’s guidelines on the implementation of the Law on Peaceful Demonstrations.
I raised the matter with … the Minister of Interior, and he said that he was very happy to take responsibility for the fact that he was requiring all NGOs and civil society organizations to report all activities. I did highlight that the Law on Peaceful Demonstrations and the implementing guidelines did not require notification. The view from the Ministry of Interior, and at the provincial level, is that the justification is to ensure the security and allow for whatever the activity is to be undertaken. But I have raised concerns that that is contrary to the existing law.
Q: Ruling party members of parliament continue to pass and amend laws that are used to restrict the freedom of expression and political rights. The last one was on political parties, and right now people feel like opposition politicians are scared to speak out. With all of these restrictive laws, jailings, threats and attacking of NGOs, do you think this will affect the [ability to have] free and fair elections [in 2018]?
A: In the current political climate, when many political actors are feeling they are being intimidated, when there is a lot of rhetoric from politicians concerning violence, and threats of intimidation or return to civil war, I think it has certainly got the potential to prevent there being free and fair elections. However, this is currently August and I believe there is still time for the situation to improve.
In order to have full, fair, free and credible elections, it is necessary that all political parties in Cambodia have equal opportunities to present their views to the potential electorate and to undertake campaigning and electioneering activities, to have equal access to media, to have equal access to the population, and then for the people to make a free and informed choice without any threat or intimidation. And that would be summarizing the standards for a free and fair election. The credibility will then be established also with respect to voter registration and the actual conduct of the actual election. The other aspect relates to the period from now until the election.
Reported by Sok Ry Sum.