Cambodia put on notice by the UN Human Rights Council

By Ahmed Adam, FORUM-ASIA

Cambodia was heavily censured at the 32nd regular session of the UN Human Rights Council in June 2016 over the government’s crackdown on space for civil society and dissent. Japan, France, United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and the European Union expressed concern at the recent escalation of attacks on civil society and the political opposition.

The 32nd session of the Council began as the Cambodian government intensified the attacks on independent civil society and opposition. In late April, Cambodian authorities detained four senior staff of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), a member of the National Election Committee (NEC), as well as members of the opposition. They remain in detention, facing trumped up allegations of bribing a witness after responding to a request for legal assistance.

The session opened with strongly-worded expression of concern by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which set the tone for criticisms that followed. He said that the recent arrests of opposition and civil society members in Cambodia indicate a “drastic and deplorable narrowing of the democratic space” that is not conducive to credible elections in 2017 and 2018.

Japan, the main sponsor of the biennial resolution of the Human Rights Council on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, followed suit with another critical statement. Japan said “the current escalation of political tensions in Cambodia, […] have resulted in considerable narrowing of space for legitimate and normal activities by opposition parties and civil society organisations.” The European Union, speaking for its 28 member states, echoed calls by Japan and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights “to ensure a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders and civil society.”

Belgium and Switzerland also voiced their concern at the deplorable situation in Cambodia particularly emphasising the restrictive legal framework for freedom of expression, assembly, and association in Cambodia. The Cambodian government has over the past years introduced several legislations to curb freedom of assembly and association. Most importantly, the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations (LANGO), adopted in August 2015, imposes severe restrictions on civil society and adds a chilling effect to the already oppressive environment for freedom of association in the country.

At the Council, the Cambodian government failed to respond to these concerns in a constructive manner. Instead, it responded with denials, and resorted to accusing the Council of politicisation, double-standards, and selectivity and states of infringing on Cambodia’s judicial procedures and interfering in its internal affairs.

Statements at the Human Rights Council show that the world is not going to turn a blind eye as the Cambodian government blatantly abuses its legal system and judiciary to silence independent voices and civil society. These statements by the international community should serve as a notice for the Cambodian government ahead of the Council’s substantive discussions on Cambodia in September when the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights situation in Cambodia will present her annual report. The government will face harsher scrutiny if it fails to address serious human rights concerns in the country by 33rd session of the Human Rights Council in September. It should start by immediately releasing detained civil society and opposition members.