Closing civic space for human rights defenders

Paris-Geneva, July 8, 2019 - Upon return from a fact-finding missionin Cambodia, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, anFIDH-OMCT partnership, expresses its utmost concern over the increasinglyshrinking civic space for human rights defenders in the country.

Over the past months, human rights defenders in Cambodia have beensubject to constant acts of harassment from the Government that has sought tolink them to a fictitious “colour revolution”, allegedly led by the formerpolitical opposition. Civil society space has further closed since theGovernment initiated its political crackdown ahead of the July 2018 generalelection, and defenders currently operate in a repressive environment that isunprecedented in Cambodia’s recent history. The main obstacles for the exerciseof defenders’ work include the harassment of dissenting voices including NGOsand media outlets and journalists, an increasingly oppressive security presenceand restrictive legal amendments.

In 2017 and 2018, as Cambodia’s multi-party democracy was beingdismantled, independent civil society was further repressed and sentencedthrough abusive charges and judicial processes. For instance, in September2018, fourstaff members from the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association(ADHOC) - one of Cambodia’s most prominent human rights NGO - wereconvicted of “bribery”. Moreover, the few remaining independent mediaoutlets were shut down or sharply curtailed through the abuse of tax lawsand administrative licensing procedures. The media outlets affected by thesemeasures included the two independent English-language newspapers, the CambodiaDaily and the Phnom Penh Post, as well as Khmer-language radioprogrammes from Voice of America, Radio Free Asia (RFA), and Voice of Democracy.Messrs. Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, two former RFA journalists, were arrested onNovember 14, 2017, two months after RFAshuttered its Cambodia operations. They were charged under Article 445 of theCriminal Code, for providing “information to foreign interests detrimental tonational security”. After their release on bail almost a year later on August21, 2018, they were placed under court supervision, which bars them fromchanging their addresses or travelling abroad. On June 21, 2019, they lost an appealthat sought to have their court supervision lifted. However, the courtclarified that the two no longer need to report to the police every month. Thecharges against them are still pending, and both face up to 15 years in jail,if convicted.

State interference in, and monitoring of, human rights activities hasalso become a systematic practice, which has hada chilling effect on civil society. Although Notice No. 175, a regulationrequiring any group, such as NGOs, to inform local authorities three daysbefore any gathering or event, was repealed by the Interior Minister onNovember 27, 2018, scores of human rights defenders and other groups havecontinued to be monitored and questioned by local authorities any time theyhave held, or intended to hold, human rights trainings or workshops. Localauthorities’ interference in such gatherings have included the review of listsof participants and agendas, as well as authorities’ physical presence duringthe events. In an attempt to intimidate civil society, the Government hasincreasingly deployed armed tactical police on the occasion of larger publichuman rights assemblies, in particular International Human Rights Day,International Women’s Rights Day, and International Labour Day. ForInternational Labour Day in Phnom Penh on May 1, 2019, around 500 mixedsecurity forces were deployed while workers and civil society members gatheredat both the Government’s Council for the Development of Cambodia as well as“Freedom Park”, an area several kilometres from the city centre designated bythe authorities for such assemblies. On that day, municipal authorities stoppedworkers from marching to the National Assembly, and instead allowed for alimited march around the temple Wat Phnom in the presence of security officials.For International Women’s Rights Day on March 8, 2019, about 500 demonstrators,mostly representatives of local unions and NGOs, gathered in Phnom Penh’sOlympic Stadium, where mixed security forces, including police officersequipped with military-style tactical gear, physically trapped them inside thestadium and prevented them from leaving or joining other demonstrators outside.A similarly large security presence was deployed during International HumanRights Day on December 10, 2018, when a group of defenders and NGOsparticipated in a peaceful assembly at “Freedom Park”. After the Phnom PenhMunicipality threatened legal action against the organisers of the event,citing vague concerns about “security and public order”, hundreds of securityforces – many of them wearing tactical gear and crash helmets – surrounded“Freedom Park”. The security forces outnumbered participants, a show of forcethat could only be intended to intimidate protesters.

Land and environmental human rights defenders are particularly subjectedto threats and harassment in Cambodia.Oneof the most emblematic case is the one of Ms. Tep Vanny, a land rightsdefender and Boeung Kak community representative, who was finallyreleased in August 2018 after being detained for735 days in relation to a peaceful protest she attended in 2013. Moreover, securityforces, including military soldiers, have also been deployed in land conflicts,a trend that has resulted in several cases of disproportionate and unnecessaryforce being used against those defending their land. In January 2019, militarysoldiers attacked a community facing eviction in Preah Vihear Province, lockedin a land conflict with a Cambodian rubber company that was granted a landconcession of more than 8,500 hectares. The farmers were arrested andphysically assaulted by soldiers who had been hired by the company as securityguards. One of the community’s representatives, Mr. Sum Meun, was beatenand, following his arrest, disappeared for two months, later reappearing in astate of shock and still suffering from injuries related to his beating.

State control has similarly increased online,in an attempt to shrink civic space on the web. On May 2, 2018, the CambodianGovernment ordered all internet service providers to have their customers’traffic pass through a State-owned data management centre at Telecom Cambodia,and the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications was ordered to “block orclose” websites and social media pages that had “illegal [content] ...considered as incitement, breaking solidarity, discrimination, create turmoilby will, leading to undermine national security, and public interests andsocial order”. These orders stem from the 2015 Law on Telecommunications, apiece of legislation that gives the Government broad authority to monitor andpolice private and public communications, and in such a context, severaldefenders have increasingly resorted to self-censorship due to a fear ofreprisals. The 2015 Law and related orders could soon be coupled with a draftCybercrime Bill, which in previous versions contained vague provisionscriminalising “slanderous” comments against the Government or officials madeonline.

Therights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression protectedunder international law are systematically violated in Cambodia, and humanrights defenders are increasingly perceived as threats rather than legitimateactors of change by the authorities. It is high time for the CambodianGovernment to acknowledge the positive role of human rights defenders for thedevelopment of the country, and to reopen the space for civil society, the Observatory said today.

Another set of laws that regulate NGOs and trade union activities haveplaced undue restrictions and burdens on defenders by undermining their rightto freedom of association.

The Law on Trade Unions (LTU), adopted in May 2016, established abureaucratic and burdensome process to register unions, setting up barriersintended to obstruct activities related to labour rights. Registration isrequired for any union to operate, otherwise its activity is deemed illegalunder the above-mentioned law. A registration form requires extensiveinformation, including family information of a union’s leadership, theirbiographies, and documents such as social security IDs and labour bookregistrations, which are typically held by factory management and thusdifficult to access. Local unions have reported that government authoritiesregularly deny their registrations for arbitrary reasons, such as minorspelling errors. In addition, the LTU allows for the dissolution of a union ifone of its leaders is convicted of a crime. In December 2018, six union leaders- Messrs. Ath Thorn, Chea Mony, Mam Nhim, Pav Sina,Rong Chhun, and YangSophorn - were convicted and handed suspended prison sentences for theiralleged role in a protest over the minimum wage in 2013.

Much like the LTU, the 2015 Law on Associations and Non-GovernmentalOrganisations (LANGO) gives the Government overly broad powers that require allgroups and associations to register before conducting any activities,determines a mandatory registration process, and gives the Ministry of Interiora wide range of powers to curtail freedoms of association and peacefulassembly. In September 2017, the Ministry of Interior used the LANGO to suspendone of the largest local land rights NGOs, EquitableCambodia, alleging that the NGO had violated the reporting requirementsstipulated in the LANGO. EquitableCambodia was only able to resume operations in February 2018, followingintense public international pressure.

If theGovernment is serious about its commitment to improve the living conditions ofthe Cambodian people, it should stop targeting defenders, and recognise them askey actors in the improvement of Cambodia's dire human rights record, the Observatory concluded.


From June 10 to June 20, 2019, the Observatory carried out afact-finding mission to Cambodia visiting Phnom Penh, Kompong Chhnang,Battambang, Banteacy Meanchey, and Siem Reap provinces. The mission met with awide-range of human rights defenders including land and environmental rightsdefenders, women’s rights defenders, media activists, as well as civil andpolitical rights defenders. The objective of the mission was to analyse to whatextent civil society space has shrunk in the lead-up to, during, and after the2018 general election, assess the main obstacles currently affecting civilsociety activities in the country, and identify causes and specific eventsattesting the shrinking of civic space. A fact-finding mission report will bepublished by the end of 2019.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (theObservatory) is a partnership created in 1997 by the FIDH and the WorldOrganisation Against Torture (OMCT) and aims to intervene to prevent or remedyconcrete situations of repression against human rights defenders. FIDH and OMCTare both members of, the European Union mechanism for humanrights defenders implemented by international civil society.

For more information, please contact:

· FIDH:Samuel Hanryon (French, English): + 33 6 72 28 42 94

· OMCT:Delphine Reculeau (French, English): + 41 22 809 49 39