UN human rights envoy: Cambodia at 'important crossroads'

UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith (left) addresses the media Wednesday at the end of her fifth visit to Cambodia to assess the country's commitment to human rights.
UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith (left) addresses the media Wednesday at the end of her fifth visit to Cambodia to assess the country's commitment to human rights. Pha Lina

UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith said on Wednesday that Cambodia was at an “important crossroads”, raising serious concerns about restrictions on the media, political participation and freedom of expression, and contending that “peace, stability and development” cannot be exclusive of human rights obligations.

The human rights envoy wrapped up a 10-day visit to the Kingdom that comes months after the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the arrest of its leader, Kem Sokha, and one of the worst government crackdowns on civil society, independent media and popular dissent in recent memory.

Smith addressed the media on Wednesday evening, calling on the government to restore fundamental freedoms in the country that, she said, had been “seriously” curtailed, especially in light of the upcoming national elections in July.

“Cambodia is at an important crossroads and must embrace human rights as they are indispensable in sustaining hard-earned peace and development,” Smith said in a written statement accompanying her official report, which noted that “human rights are crucial for durable peace, stability and development. They cannot be selectively respected or ignored and they must not be sacrificed.”

“The right to political participation and freedom of expression are of particular importance during electoral processes, and the authorities have a responsibility to ensure that individuals, political parties and the media can operate without being threatened or sanctioned,” the statement adds.



While raising concerns over a slew of legislative and constitutional amendments rammed through parliament – many instrumental in enabling last year’s crackdown – Smith reiterated concerns over the government’s continued use of “rule by law” rather than “rule of law”, which ensures legal equity.

“Otherwise, governance becomes purely rule by law, where laws do not respect human rights principles, are not adopted through a transparent process, and are applied in an arbitrary or discriminatory manner,” she said in her statement.

In a press conference on Wednesday, Smith questioned the evidence used to justify the forced dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, which consisted largely of a video of now-jailed CNRP President Kem Sokha telling supporters he received advice from the United States. The government claimed the clip constituted “treason”, and arrested Sokha in a midnight raid in September.

The subsequent use of the clip by the Supreme Court in justifying the CNRP’s dissolution two months later, Smith said, was inappropriate given that it was still part of an ongoing investigation in a lower court.

With regards to security personnel firing on land dispute protesters in Kratie last week, injuring at least three, Smith said it was concerning villagers’ homes had been burned by authorities inside the rubber plantation that claims the land. While there have so far been no confirmed deaths – despite initial reports – civil society monitors should not have been blocked from accessing the plantation in the aftermath of the shooting, she said.

“In the interests of promoting trust and transparency, I believe it is important to allow independent monitors access. I call for an independent investigation,” Smith said in her report.

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said that Smith had a flawed understanding of the Kingdom, likening it to her looking to the west when the sun was rising in the east.

“When they are in charge in positions like this they look at Cambodia from a place that is opposite to the sun,” Sopheak said.

He rejected her concerns over the implementation of the law, suggesting it was in the nature of special rapporteurs to oppose the government.

“That is why she cannot agree on Cambodian things,” he added. “We just implement based on the law.”

CPP spokesman Sok Eysan was equally dismissive of Smith’s mission report, claiming she was interfering with the court and undermining its independence.

“Rule by law or rule of law? I don’t know, but Cambodia just implements the law to ensure the stability of democracy,” he said.

Licadho Director Naly Pilorge, in brief comments, said the special rapporteur needed to keep a close eye on the government’s continuing restrictions on liberties, as well the targeting of civil society.

“We hope Mrs Smith will continue to follow more closely continued gross human rights violations which Cambodians face and the restrictions of civil society groups who are only trying to provide relief and support to victims,” she said in a message.

Updated: 6:40am, Thursday 15 March 2018