HRW report dismissed as ‘unfounded’

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Labour ministry spokesman Heng Sour addresses a press conference on October 12. Heng Chivoan

Senior government officials have dismissed a recent report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) as unfounded and unprofessional, and something the government would not be taking into consideration.

The 21-page report – titled “Only Instant Noodle Unions Survive” and released on November 21 – highlighted alleged government repression on trade unions, political opposition, the media and civil society activism, particularly since early 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic.

HRW alleged that the government had intensified its crackdown on independent unions, using public health and other grounds as ostensible justifications.

“Many employers adopted retrenchment measures, making mass layoffs for jobs that no longer existed, which facilitated the government clampdown on independent unions,” it said.

The report said five cases of “unfair dismissals” and “mass layoffs” targeting union leaders and activist members had been documented, which added to Cambodia’s longstanding and pervasive problems of “union-busting”.

The report referred to the case of the NagaWorld layoffs.

It also urged the government to amend or annul articles in the Criminal Code that the NGO saw as restricting fundamental rights, such as those on incitement, defamation, public defamation or the defaming of public officials.

Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training spokesman Heng Sour hit back at the report, saying it lacked truth and was unprofessional.

“What is written in the HRW report does not reflect the truth on the ground. The public in Cambodia do not care about HRW reports because this NGO always makes its reports in an unprofessional way and never acknowledges the results we have made,” Sour said.

During the pandemic, he added, the Cambodian government had paid full attention to the health, life and benefits of workers, through financial support and the maintaining of their jobs, with none of this mentioned in the HRW report.

While Sour denied what had been raised, local NGOs appeared to back the report to varying degrees.

Am Sam Ath, deputy director at rights group Licadho, said HRW had “deep research” and that local rights observers had witnessed the same issues.

He claimed the government’s Covid-19 measures had suppressed gatherings of labour rights activists.

“There were arrests made under the guise of violating Covid measures, with workers holding protests placed in quarantine centres,” he said.

While accepting the implementation of Covid-19 measures was important, Sam Ath said some practices had been enforced beyond what was reasonable and affected people’s fundamental freedoms.

Rights group Adhoc spokesman Soeung Sen Karuna urged the government to consider the shortfalls raised in the report, with doing so better than denying them outright, while appropriate measures should be prepared to respond to any future pandemic.

However, Chin Malin, vice-president of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee (CHRC) and spokesman for the Ministry of Justice, said the HRW report did not take into consideration the reality regarding the measures against Covid-19, which has killed more than 3,000 Cambodians.

He said the report was contradictory to the overall reality as perceived by Cambodian people, while the government’s Covid measures had been applauded by the international community and regarded as a great success.

“The Human Rights Watch report is what each and every one of us knows – it is a report made with vindictiveness and hatred of the government.

“Their assessments and conclusion are not based on the facts, overall human rights aspects or Cambodian law.

“They are based on only revenge and in support of those who have tendencies towards the opposition,” Malin said.