UN Human Rights Envoy Wants Rule of Law, Not Rule by Law in Cambodia

Rhona Smith stresses the need to make sure that laws are applied compatibly with international rights standards.

United Nations human rights envoy Rhona Smith speaks to the press at her office in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh, Oct. 19, 2016.

The United Nations human rights envoy to Cambodia asked the government to respect the rule of law and not “rule by law” during a meeting on Wednesday with the head of the Southeast Asian nation's human rights committee, amid recent moves to suppress the political opposition and freedom of expression.

“We discussed a range of different human rights issues and the work of the [U.N.] commission on human rights, obviously, and the committee in Cambodia,” said Rhona Smith, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, following a meeting in Phnom Penh with Keo Remy, a Cambodian politician who is head of the government’s human right committee.

“I did discuss the need to have full rights of political participation in Cambodia and for the views of the people who want the results of the elections to be respected and recognized,” she told reporters, referring to a general election in July.

When asked whether she broached the subject of NGOs, Smith said: “I discussed the need to make sure that the laws in Cambodia are applied compatibly with international human rights standards particularly looking at the laws that are used to restrict or limit freedom of expression in the country.”

The government agreed that there was a need to ensure respect for human rights in the country, she said.

The U.N. and Cambodia’s donor nations have expressed alarm over Prime Minister Hun Sen's targeting of the political opposition, NGOs, and independent media in a months-long crackdown to silence critics ahead of a general election on July 29.

In September, Kem Sokha, leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP)  was arrested for treason for allegedly conspiring with the United States to overthrow the Cambodian government, and now faces up to 30 years in jail if found guilty.

Two months later, the Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP at the government’s request for what it said was the party’s involvement in plotting a “coup” against the administration. The decision, which banned 118 CNRP lawmakers and senior officials from politics for five years, effectively wiped out the opposition party as a serious challenger in the election.

And in February, Cambodia's parliament approved controversial changes to several articles in the constitution and passed a strict lèse-majesté law as part of the government’s efforts to clamp down on dissent.

The amendments included provisions that oppose interference in the country's internal affairs and legalize the removal of voting rights and the right to run as a candidate for political office for those deemed to have violated the interest of the state.

Lawmakers also passed changes to the Constitutional Council Law to ensure compliance with the constitution, the interpretation of the charter and related statutes, and decisions by legislators in election-related disputes.

‘Pretext’ to social chaos

Keo Remy, head of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, said he and Smith did not see eye to eye on all the matters they discussed.

“She said Cambodia applies rule by law rather than the rule of law,” he said. “Of course, I told her that every country will use laws as the basis for ruling [and that] every country will have to respect the law. That is the only way to make people abide by law and order.”

Keo Remy went on to say that human rights issues should not be used as “pretext” to cause societal chaos.

“I support her remarks that changes happen in every country, including her country,” he said. “However, I only support the changes through a democratic election.”

“I would not support any change through undemocratic means, including acts of toppling the government though outlawed activities,” he said, referring to accusations by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party government that CNRP members are trying to overthrow the current administration.

“We had a lot of discussion; however, we didn’t agree on many issues,” Keo Remy said.

CNRP lawmakers in exile, including former party chief Sam Rainsy, have launched the Cambodia National Rescue Movement to put pressure on the government to end its persecution of the opposition and ensure free and fair elections.

On Monday, Hun Sen rejected a request from Sam Rainsy for negotiations to end the current political crisis, branding him a traitor and a convict, the Associated Press reported.

United Nations human rights commissioner Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein looks on during a press conference at the UN offices in Geneva, Switzerland, Aug. 30, 2017. Credit AFP
Shrinking civic space

In a related development the same day, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, U.N. high commissioner for human rights, told the Human Rights Council that he is growing increasingly concerned about the government’s efforts to quash dissent.

“In Cambodia, I am seriously concerned at increasing moves to repress dissent and close political and civil society space,” he said. “Broadly-worded legal provisions have been used to silence civil society organizations, journalists and members and supporters of political parties.”

“[T]he Supreme Court has dissolved the principal opposition party, disenfranchising opposition voters,” he said. “Recently adopted amendments to the Constitution and Criminal Code are likely to further erode political rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Zeid called on the government to guarantee the political rights of the people, to respect the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly, and to release human rights defenders and opposition party politicians.

A new report issued by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) highlights Cambodia’s shrinking political and civic space during the second half of 2017 ahead of a U.N. Human Rights Council discussion on the country later this month.

“The period was marked by continuing political tension and the further reduction of the political and civic space, including the closure and suspension of human rights and environmental non-governmental and media organizations, the arrest of the leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party and the dissolution of the party, which was the main party of opposition,” the report said.

Zeid’s comments and the OHCHR report came as Cambodian authorities are increasing restrictions on public meetings by harassing villagers who gather for social purposes.

Police in Samraong district in southwestern Cambodia’s Takeo province summoned two farmers and a member of a civil society group for questioning regarding a meeting they held with 25 farmers to help them register for social security benefits and savings, sources told RFA’s Khmer Service.

The three were later released after they signed a document about their activities, though police filed a report on them with higher authorities.

Authorities have restricted freedom of assembly and association following the dissolution of the CNRP and a call issued by Sam Rainsy for Cambodians and the country’s armed forces to stand up to Hun Sen for abusing human rights and democracy.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.