Joint Civil Society Letter - 54th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council
We, the undersigned civil society organisations, are writing to alert your government to the worsening human rights crisis in Cambodia, and to appeal to you for your support for a resolution strengthening and extending scrutiny of the situation to be adopted at the 54th regular session of the UN Human Rights Council (the “Council”).
Human rights violations perpetrated in the context of general elections held on 23 July mark a new low in the two years of continual decline in the overall situation of human rights in Cambodia since the last Council resolution on the country in October 2021.1 There has been no tangible progress, and the Cambodian government has failed to demonstrate any political will towards meeting the 20 benchmarks presented to the Council in October 2022 by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia “to help promote human rights implementation in the country.”
The High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk described the environment leading up to the July general elections as “a severely restricted space that negatively impacted on the rights of Cambodians to participate fully and equally in all aspects of the electoral process.” Similarly, a joint statement by at least seven UN human rights experts said that “[t]he lead up to recent elections […] and its results are extremely disconcerting.” They further said that “[a] range of serious human rights violations and severe restrictions on civic and political space […] including a ban on the main opposition party, media restrictions and blockages and the harassment of perceived opponents of the ruling elite….”
The government engaged in serious attacks on political opposition in the lead-up to the elections, with violent rhetoric, and arbitrary arrests and detention of political activists. The non-independent, politically biased National Election Committee disqualified two opposition parties, including the Candlelight Party, which was widely considered to be the most credible opposition party. Days before the election, the government ordered internet service providers to block access to the websites and social media accounts of at least three news outlets perceived to be critical of the government.
The government has continued a policy of systematic and relentless persecution of human rights defenders, environmental and land rights defenders, trade unionists, political opposition, and independent media and media workers through judicial harassment including mass trials and legal action, as detailed in the annex to this letter.
The conviction and sentencing to 2-years’ imprisonment of trade unionist and labour rights activist Chhim Sithar along with eight labour activists in May 2023, the conviction of 10 land rights defenders in Koh Kong in August 2023, and the conviction and 27-year prison sentence against opposition leader Kem Sokha in March 2023 are emblematic of the continuing pattern of criminalisation and judicial harassment of human rights defenders and political opposition. A judiciary that lacks independence from the executive branch renders the prospect of fair trials and due process guarantees virtually non- existent for those perceived to be critical of, or a threat to, the interests of the ruling elites.
The Cambodian authorities have demonstrated a systematic and growing intolerance of independent media. The latest example is the arbitrary revocation of the media license of the Voice of Democracy, run by the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, which, as a group of UN human rights experts concluded, “leaves virtually no free media outlets operating in the country.”
Laws are routinely misused to restrict human rights, undermine and atack civil society, and criminalise individuals for their exercise of freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. Provisions of the Criminal Code, especially article 305 on defamation, article 453 on ‘plotting’ against the government, and articles 494 and 495 on incitement to commit felony and disturb social security have been routinely used against human rights defenders and political opponents. The Law on Non-Governmental Organisations, Law on Trade Unions, and Law on Political Parties continue to pose serious challenges for civic and political freedoms in Cambodia, while draft laws being contemplated by the government on cybercrime and on public order would provide further tools of repression.
Over the past years, the Special Rapporteur on Cambodia has played a vital role in adding an independent and respected voice to verify and bring attention to the reporting of human rights groups and activists on the ground. The government’s restriction of civic of space and crackdown on the exercise of freedom of expression, and reporting by independent and critical voices makes the role of the Special Rapporteur even more vital in the promotion of respect for human rights and ensuring protection of fundamental freedoms and vulnerable populations in the country.
It is imperative that the Council seizes the moment and takes effective action at its 54th session to address the government’s continuing systematic repression, restriction of civic and political space and clampdown on human rights in Cambodia. The Council should send a clear message to newly appointed Prime Minister Hun Manet and the government that there is a cost for continuing the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s (CPP’s) past systematic approaches to silencing the media and targeting dissenting voices. The message sent now should be clear – that the international community will hold the government accountable for their human rights commitments and obligations. To this end, the Human Rights Council should ensure adequate monitoring and reporting, and track progress (or lack thereof) against the concrete benchmarks that have been elaborated by the Special Rapporteur.
In this regard, our organisations urge the Council to adopt a resolution that:
- Renews the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia for a further two years to ensure continued monitoring and reporting on the situation in the country as well as to provide technical assistance and capacity building, with a view to fully implementing Cambodia’s international human rights obligations;
- Welcomes, and mandates enhanced monitoring and reporting on the progress in the implementation of, the 20 benchmarks presented by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia to the 51st session of the Council;
- Substantively and accurately reflects the situation on the ground as documented in the report of the Special Rapporteur that will be presented to the 54th session of the Council, as well as concerns expressed by the High Commissioner and other Special Procedures in relation to, among others, the persecution of human rights defenders and political opposition including Kem Sokha, and restrictions on the rights to freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and of association.
We further urge your government, during the 54th session of the Council, to speak out strongly and unequivocally against the continuing pattern of violations of human rights in Cambodia, to send a clear message that impunity for human rights violations will not be tolerated.
We remain at your disposal for any further information.
Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
Human Rights Watch
International Commission of Jurists (ICJ)
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)
The full open letter can be downloaded in PDF here.