Gov’t refutes UN intimidation claims

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Rhona Smith, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia​ met with Interior Minister Sar Kheng last year. Heng Chivoan

Government officials have refuted remarks by UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres, who recently said security guards had intimidated groups and individuals associated with the UN in Cambodia.

The officials said his remarks failed to represent a balanced or accurate picture of the situation on the ground.

On Wednesday, Guterres will present an annual report by Rhona Smith, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia.

The report concerns intimidation and reprisals against individuals and groups seeking to cooperate or who have cooperated with the UN, its representatives and the mechanisms in the field of human rights and civil society organisations (CSOs).

He said Smith had reported to him that the police were arriving uninvited to events, training, and meetings. They would take photographs and inquire about the organisers and participants of the event.

The report didn’t name specific individuals or organisations that have suffered intimidation or reprisal.

Guterres said the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported that in November last year, the police demanded a permit from the organiser a day before a meeting in Sihanoukville between a Cambodian CSO and the UN country team.

The OHCHR addressed the lawful meeting with provincial authorities and it was allowed to proceed. But the following day, the police again demanded details of the activity and the names of participants.

The OHCHR reported that in August last year, it conducted a training course on human rights monitoring and fact-finding in Kampong Thom province for 25 human rights defenders and other members of civil society, including representatives of youth networks.

Police officers arrived at the premises and demanded to see the training agenda and list of participants, and attempted to take photographs of participants, according to the OHCHR.

Civil society representatives have also reportedly declined to be identified as working with the UN in its advocacy to the Ministry of Interior due to fears of reprisals.

Some victims in detention have declined assistance from the OHCHR, including refusing to have their cases reported to UN human rights mechanisms, said the report.

In the report, Guterres said Smith has repeatedly been denied confidential interviews with detainees. She reiterated that she should be able to visit any place of detention and meet with anyone as part of carrying out her mandate.

In response to the case in Kampong Thom, provincial governor Sok Lou said on Tuesday that his province didn’t obstruct or disturb CSO or UN activities, rather the province had cooperated well with them.

“For me and the provincial administration alike, [we] have never restricted the activities. In the past, they have always made it easier for CSOs and the UN to carry out their activities,” he said.

Lou said his province had always welcomed CSOs, and even when human rights representatives visited to conduct research into land disputes in Prasat Balang district’s Doung commune, provincial authorities made it easier for them to do their work.

Similarly, Preah Sihanouk Provincial Hall spokesperson Kheang Phearum said on Tuesday that he didn’t recall a time when a CSO was obstructed in his province.

The authorities could have obstructed them from entering unsafe places or bar them from entering places with land encroachment issues. But in general, he did not know of any obstructions.

Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin said that a report by the special rapporteur is a compilation of events.

No one consulted with relevant sides, including authorities and police, Malin said. Those who compiled the document had only spoken with CSOs which claimed to have encountered issues.

“They didn’t study why police took measures against all the CSOs, whether all the CSOs followed their duties or professional ethics or breached administrative formalities. Sometimes, their activities are in violation of the law in force in Cambodia, especially the Law on Associations and NGOs [Lango],” he said.

Concerning the report’s conclusion being made without having met with the relevant sides, he said it did not correspond to the actual situation and is biased.

Ministry of Interior spokesman Phat Sophanith said on Tuesday that in principle, both the government and the ministry had always encouraged organisations that carried out legal activities in Cambodia to participate in developing the country.

He said the ministry had also encouraged the creation of partnerships with CSOs and a spirit of working honestly with each other.

In the past, Sophanith said, the government had set up mechanisms to discuss and address concerns expressed by CSOs, including holding a partnership forum every six months.

The government had also met to discuss proposals and requests for amending certain articles of Lango. This indicates the good intentions of the government concerning CSOs, he said, adding that the government has never considered enemies of any side.

If police, with or without ill intent, negatively affected legal NGOs, Sophanith said they did not represent the will of the government or the ministry.

“We always try to instruct local authorities to execute their roles and duties legally. Police presence is just to ensure peace and public order in their localities. Their presence is not to intimidate any side and there is nothing to worry about if NGOs or CSOs don’t do anything illegal,” he said.

However, Soeng Sen Karuna, the senior investigator for rights group Adhoc, said there used to be restrictions on freedom of assembly, education in the field of human rights and democracy.

Police monitored people, photographed name lists, took pictures and questioned participants after the 2017 commune and district elections.

He said most of the restrictions were imposed on organisations that worked on human rights and democracy.

But recently, he said the restrictions had decreased as the Ministry of Interior intervened.