Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns

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Cambodia: Human rights abuses

Cambodia Kem Ley funeral

The government of Cambodia is currently implementing one of the worst crackdowns against the opposition political party and human rights organizations in recent years. Maryknoll Lay Missioner Charles McCarthy contributed to this article which was published in the July-August 2016 issue of NewsNotes.

The ruling party in Cambodia, the Cambodian People's Party (CPP), has made aggressive moves in recent months that international groups describe as a campaign to intimidate political opponents before the 2018 election. In March, the UN special human rights envoy for Cambodia, Rhona Smith, said the contentious and at times violent political situation has pushed Cambodia “close to a dangerous tipping point.”

The situation has continued to deteriorate.

On May 26 the government deployed armed paramilitary forces to the headquarters of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). There they attempted to arrest Kem Sokha, leader of the CNRP, despite his immunity as a lawmaker. Sokha was not present and so escaped arrest. He had been summonsed over an alleged extramarital affair with a hairdresser in a case widely seen as politically-motivated. The U.S. embassy said on its Facebook page that the U.S. government was “deeply concerned” and called on the government of Cambodia to “refrain from using unnecessary force.”

This incident comes a few weeks after four human rights workers and an election committee official were detained for allegedly bribing the hairdresser to deny the purported affair with Sokha. The five face 5-10 years in prison if convicted. Amnesty International has identified them as prisoners of conscience.

The government has repeatedly blocked a peaceful “Black Monday” campaign that calls for the release of the five detained rights defenders. As demonstrators dress in black to mourn the state of human rights, police have repeatedly blocked them from gathering. On May 9 and 16, Phnom Penh police detained at least 13 people, including human rights and land activists, holding them for up to 12 hours. Other public actions calling for release of the five have also been repressed. Around the country, groups collecting petition signatures have been subjected to questioning and arrest.

These developments show a marked deterioration of the protection of the rights to freedom of expression, speech and assembly in Cambodia. These freedoms are guaranteed under the Cambodian Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Cambodia is a state party.  

In response to this deteriorating human rights situation, Maryknoll missioners in Cambodia joined 40 other international NGOs in signing a public appeal to the government of Cambodia to stop human rights abuses.  

The letter follows:

We, the undersigned international NGOs, recognize the Royal Government of Cambodia's commitment to global agreements and frameworks, such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  We note that the quest for sustainable development is reflected in policy documents such as the 2014-2018 National Strategic Development Plan and the "Rectangular Strategy" of the Royal Government of Cambodia.

We share the  commitment and belief  that  progress in  achieving  SDGs and other social,  economic,  environmental  or political goals requires  strong social  systems through which  citizens interact with each other and with their  government.

Recent events, however, lead us to believe that a number of civil society organizations that promote accountability and transparency have been considered by the government as a threat to the stability of Cambodia. We believe these organizations make important contributions to human development, and a stable society ready for growth and prosperity.  

We believe that the international charters to which Cambodia is a signatory (such as the International Covenant on Civil and political Rights) recognize democratic values including the freedom of expression and the right to a fair trial.  We also believe that the Constitution of Cambodia similarly provides a framework for protection and respect of rights.

While maintaining a spirit of partnership and cooperation, we appeal to the Royal Government of Cambodia to:

  • Promote,  protect, and respect the fundamental rights and freedoms of Cambodian people enshrined  in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights  and the International Covenants to which  Cambodia is a party;
  • Ensure Cambodian citizens are not arrested where their actions have not contravened law and where their actions are the expression of their rights;
  • Ensure there is no judicial harassment against Cambodian citizens who are working to protect people's rights;
  • Ensure there is space for democratic partici-• pation, advancement of human rights, and development processes.

Photo: A demonstrator holds the Cambodian flag and a photo of slain political analyst Ken Ley during the funeral procession in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on July 24. Tens of thousands of people joined what was the largest funeral procession Cambodia since the procession for the late King Norodom Sihanouk in 2013. Photo courtesy of Charles McCarthy, a Maryknoll Lay Missioner.

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