A group of civil society organizations in Cambodia marked International Human Rights Day on Tuesday by calling on the government to drastically improve the country’s rights record to avoid the loss of crucial tariff-free access to the European Union under a preferential trade scheme.
More than 2,000 people gathered in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park at an event celebrating human rights, where representatives of trade unions, land rights groups, and other NGOs warned that withdrawal of the country’s Everything But Arms (EBA) status—which gives developing nations tariff-free access to the EU’s markets for all products except arms—would lead to dire setbacks in Cambodia.
In a Nov. 12 preliminary report, the EU warned Cambodia that it has not taken enough measures to prevent a loss of its special trade privileges, noting the country’s further deterioration of civil, political, labor, social, and cultural rights since the launch of a review process in February.
Cambodia has until Thursday to respond to the report, at which point the EU will finalize it and make a decision in February 2020 on whether to withdraw EBA status.
Meas Sarath, the general director of local rights group Adhoc, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the EBA provides immeasurable benefits for the people of Cambodia, including peace and prosperity, and dismissed Prime Minister Hun Sen’s claims that adhering to EU rights requirements to maintain trade benefits amounted to forfeiting national sovereignty.
“[The government] must open up the democratic process and return to negotiations with the opposition party in order to find a solution,” he said, referring to the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which the Supreme Court banned in November 2017 over its role in an alleged coup plot, and which the EU has said should be reinstated as part of a restoration of political rights and democracy in the country.
“In order to find a resolution, the international community—and especially the European Union—has advised that the [government] must rebuild democracy,” he added.
The ban on the political opposition in 2017 forced CNRP officials to relinquish their elected positions and, along with a wider crackdown on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Ath Thon, the president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, said at Tuesday’s event that his organization had submitted a 19-point petition to the government calling for protections and improvements to labor rights and conditions—another significant focus of the EU’s concerns in its preliminary report.
“We have seen the European Union demanding that the government solve the problem, but we’re still not sure how things are going to go, because the government hasn’t provided its response [to the preliminary report],” he said.
“We do not know clearly whether [the EU is] going to revoke [EBA status] or not, but if they do, it will have a devastating impact on [Cambodia’s] workers and their income, and also lead to further abuses of human and labor rights.”
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) issued a statement on Tuesday detailing what it said were “concrete actions taken to hinder celebrations and to restrict the peaceful exercise of human rights” in Cambodia in 2019, and calling on the government to “cease all arbitrary action and targeting of human rights defenders.”
The group also expressed concern over moves by authorities to hinder celebrations marking International Human Rights Day in Cambodia on Tuesday, as well as the government’s decision to remove it as a public holiday in the country beginning in 2020.
“We celebrate Human Rights Day today, to reignite our commitment to the promotion and protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms,” Chak Sopheap, CCHR’s executive director said in the statement.
“This day serves as a much needed reminder that fundamental and inalienable human rights are integral to our society. We encourage the [government] to embrace Human Rights Day celebrations and utilize this day to celebrate and empower those who work to improve the situation of human rights in Cambodia.”
Leaders weigh in
The former president of the CNRP, Kem Sokha, who faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted on charges of treason that are widely seen as politically motivated, also marked International Human Rights Day on Tuesday by posting a rare message on his Facebook account, saying the protection of human rights is crucial to maintaining peace in Cambodia.
“Human rights abuses are unjust, cause suffering, and bring insecurity to society,” he said in Tuesday’s post.
“Human rights do not belong to any one nation—they are the rights of all humanity. Working to protect and enhance human rights has nothing to do with allowing others to interfere in a country’s internal affairs.”
Kem Sokha was arrested in September 2017 and charged with treason over a video recorded four years earlier in which he discusses a strategy to win power at the ballot box with the help of U.S. experts—allegations he has denied and which the EU has said should be dropped if Cambodia hopes to maintain EBA status. His trial is set for Jan. 15.
Not one to be left out, Hun Sen also weighed in on Tuesday by favorably comparing the country’s rights situation after decades of his rule to that under the Khmer Rouge regime, whose leadership oversaw the killing of nearly two million Cambodians during its 1975-79 reign of terror.
“Freedom [from the Khmer Rouge] has allowed people to choose how they live, work, what religion they follow, and who they elect as their leader, and this freedom has also allowed Cambodia to make strong progress,” he wrote in a message posted to his Facebook page.
But civil society hit back, saying that Hun Sen should spend less time comparing his government to that of the Khmer Rouge and more time working to improve the country according to its laws and international obligations.
Call for an end to charges
Cambodians celebrated International Human Rights Day as New York-based Human Rights Watch issued a statement calling on the EU to press for the dismissal of Kem Sokha’s case, saying the charges against him were invented by Hun Sen’s government as a pretext to eliminate his political competitors.
“The case against Kem Sokha has always been a dubious excuse to attack the political opposition,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen needs to demonstrate to the European Union that he is genuinely prepared to end his campaign of political repression of opposition voices.”
Human Rights Watch said that despite being held for more than two years in what the United Nations deemed “arbitrary” pre-trial detention amid an investigation of his case, authorities still lack evidence to support the charges against Kem Sokha.
It also dismissed Hun Sen’s decision to release on bail 74 members of the opposition arrested between August and November over allegations of “plotting a coup,” “incitement,” and “discrediting judicial decision,” after they voiced support for the return of CNRP leaders from exile to lead what the party said would be a restoration of democracy in the country through nonviolent protest.
A ban on opposition leaders from returning to Cambodia and coordinating travel restrictions with Thailand and other neighboring countries, ultimately scuttled the CNRP’s planned Nov. 9 return to the country.
“The EU shouldn’t be fooled by Hun Sen’s release of opposition members without dropping charges,” Robertson said.
“The EU should keep up the pressure until exiled CNRP leaders can safely return and the party can fully take part in a fair democratic process.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Pheap Aun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.