Cambodia has rejected a UN Human Rights Council report accusing the government of sending police to monitor human rights gatherings – intimidating local participants and NGOs – but rights groups said harassment was in fact the norm in the Southeast Asian nation.
Cambodia was cited in a report by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to the Geneva-based Council Wednesday on instances where governments punished their citizens for cooperating with the UN human rights mechanisms and representatives.
“In Cambodia, we continue to receive reports of acts of intimidation against civil society and human rights organizations, which impede their capacity to monitor and report – including to this Council,” said the country-specific section of the global report.
The Office of the UN Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) found that local rights groups were afraid to associate and with UN rights monitors for fear of reprisals, according to the report, based on events in 2019. Rhona Smith, UN special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia, was quoted as saying training sessions and gatherings her office hosted were shadowed by security agents.
Responding to a link to the report posted on social media by OHCHR in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s mission to the UN in Geneva expressed “great disappointment” at a post it said had presented an unbalanced view that lacked context.
“The assertion that those cooperating with the UN human rights mechanism are intimidated or retaliated is an exaggeration. There is no shortage of instances that representatives of Cambodian CSOs [civil society organizations] physically attend meetings of (the) treaty body in Geneva,” the government statement said.
It said that many other Cambodians had submitted lists of issues for consideration to the council and were free to carry out “their activities in line with the law without any harassment or reprisal.”
The full UN report contained Phnom Penh’s response to the OHCHR’s assertions, calling them one-sided and made without transparency. Cambodia told the UN that security forces were present at its activities in Cambodia merely to keep the peace, not to intimidate.
But Am Sam Ath of local rights group LICADHO told RFA’s Khmer Service that the Cambodian mission’s statement was yet another attempt by Phnom Penh to hide facts – three years into a major crackdown on the political opposition, civil society and independent media.
“This is nothing new… The government needs to restore democracy and especially human rights, he said.
“The EU and UN and UN Special Rapporteur have always expressed concerns about the basic foundation of human rights, freedom of assembly and expression. If the government has failed to honor human rights obligations, they should fix the problem. That would be more helpful,” added Am Sam Ath.
Civil rights in Cambodia, ruled by strongman Hun Sen since 1985, began a downward spiral three years ago when opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party President Kem Sokha was arrested on unsupported treason charges in September 2017, and the Supreme Court dissolved and banned the CNRP in November 2017.
The ban, along with a wider crackdown on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election, making Cambodia effectively a one-party state.
Government denials of widely observed and recorded events and documented facts are hard to maintain in an era of technology and social media, said Meas Nee, a social analyst.
“It is normal for the government to deny the truth,” he told RFA
“Hiding it is hard because of social media. You can’t continue to pressure inside and deny outside. You need to seek solutions to ease criticisms from international community,” added Meas Nee.
The crackdown on CNRP supporters and activists has continued unabated.
On Thursday authorities in Phnom Penh deployed 40 security officers block the family members of about 20 detained CNRP activists from staging a protest in front of the Supreme Court in the capital to demand their release, some of the family members told RFA. Two family members were injured in a scuffle.
“This morning I was threatened. If I were to suddenly disappear, the authorities must be held responsible. They wanted to break my feet,” Sat Pha, one of the family members told RFA’s Khmer Service.
She said that the guards deliberately targeted female members of the protest group including herself, and that they smashed her into the ground.
“It was very brutal this morning. They told us that all the detainees are traitors, but I told them that they are not,” she said.
The group of mostly female protesters have been regularly gathering in front of the courthouse every Friday, but this week they met a day earlier to align with the court’s schedule. The court heard bail requests from the activists and will deliver a decision next week.
Among the detained is Kak Komphear, who according to The Phnom Penh Post had been on the run since his Oct. 2019 incitement conviction until authorities arrested him on May 31.
His lawyer Lor Chhunthy told RFA that the court proceeded with the hearing without his client present and is scheduled to announce their verdict Monday.
RFA could not reach Phnom Penh Municipality Governor Khoung Sreng for comment Thursday.
Ny Sokha of local rights group ADHOC, who monitored the attempted protest, said the authorities violated the people’s constitutional rights to peaceful protest.
“The authorities should have followed democratic way of allowing people to express themselves and have right to gather,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.