Cambodia: State party and Committee must “agree to disagree” on fundamental freedoms
Published on 25 Mar 2022, 04:12 PM
From 9 to 11 March 2022, Cambodia was reviewed for the third time by the Human Rights Committee on the implementation of the ICCPR.
The Delegation of Cambodia began the session by announcing their willingness to engage with the review, adding that the promotion and protection of human rights was a cornerstone to Cambodian national and foreign policy. The Delegation optimistically volunteered information on the positive steps taken to protect and promote the rights of certain communities - the increased budget for legal aid to combat violence against women, plans to review the law on domestic violence that was pushed back to 2022 by the pandemic, and public awareness campaigns on LGBTI rights as a step towards homosexual marriage recognition and registration under civil law.
In contrast, when the Committee members pressed on with questions concerning fundamental freedoms and with requests for further information on certain thematic issues, the Delegation deferred to pre-drafted statements and stated that the Delegation and the Committee needed to “agree to disagree”, reminding the Committee Members that the United Nations had supported genocidal regimes.
Suppression of Fundamental Freedoms by Excessive Laws
Over the three days, the Committee members raised and returned to fundamental freedoms in Cambodia, particularly on the use of restrictive laws and law enforcement.
One Committee Member drew attention to the reports that the Law on Preventative Measures against the Spread of COVID-19 and Other Serious and Dangerous Communicable Diseases had been invoked to arrest over 700 people “intentionally obstructing” COVID-19 measures between March and October 2021, asking after plans for the law’s revision or repeal. Another Committee Member flagged that, between August and November 2019, there had been a crackdown on opposition-party members and supporters, resulting in the imprisonment of around 90 individuals. Although the State maintained that there were no violations of freedom of expression, noting that no journalists had been killed in the last 20 years - the 17 cases recognised by the Government between 1994 to 2020 of attacks on journalists resulting from journalists “not taking appropriate precautions” - one Committee Member nonetheless described freedom of the press as being at a “crisis level”.
Despite the Committee’s concerns over the use of laws and institutions to suppress freedoms, the Delegation proposed further laws and further in-house institutional oversight. For media licences revoked by the Ministry of Information, the Delegation offered the options of appeal through the civil courts or written letters to the Ministry declaring intentions not to commit further offences. For websites blocked for threatening State security, violating laws prohibiting the publication of misleading information, or sharing propaganda affecting elections, the Delegation said that in the future, Cambodia will establish separate Courts and legislation specific to this matter.
Referring to the hundreds of reported cases of criminal prosecutions over public comments or social media posts that were critical of the Government’s pandemic response, one Committee member expressed that it was “deplorable” that in the Written Replies the State party had labelled critics and opponents as “crooks” and asked whether the State party would commit to refraining from further criminalising speech. In response, the Delegation read from a pre-drafted statement to the effect of “no” - noting that those who had been arrested had incited violence, disseminated lies about the State, provided State secrets to foreign nations, and/or undermined the honour and dignity of the State. By contrast, when Committee Members asked after laws that would give way to freedoms - namely the revision of the Law on the Association of NGOs and adoption of the Access to Information - the Delegation said such action would not be possible.
The Committee Members recalled reports and pressed for answers on efforts being taken to strengthen the judiciary and protective laws; raising concerns and questions on the failure to adopt a comprehensive national policy on legal aid and refusal to enact legislation to protect against torture. The Delegation responded that Cambodia does not intend to establish a specific law on torture, given the existence of other relevant laws, though were considering the establishment of another law “from a technical point of view”. The Delegation pointed out mandated institutions intended for checks and balances, though did not respond to questions posed by Committee Members on their independence and functioning.
One Committee Member asked how the independence on the National Committee Against Torture, whose members were also members of the Ruling Party, was ensured. One Committee Member later pressed for answers on how the ACU ensures that the asset declarations of political officials are verified, what the consequences were for false reporting, and why these asset declarations were kept confidential. The same Committee Member asked for an update on the status of investigations by the Anti-Corruption Unit, including how many of those investigated in the 313 complaints received in 2019 had been tried, found guilty, and faced consequences. Responding to the question on how many complaints were registered against Judges for corruption, the Delegation stated that the ACU had arrested two judges, two prosecutors and five clerks for corrupt activities between 2011 and 2019, though added that “Judges were free to join political parties as is their political right”.
In and amongst the questions and concerns raised on existing institutions, the Committee also addressed concerns over the Government-led process to establish an NHRI, citing the widely-signed civil society joint press statement opposing the plans and asking for a timeline for the completion of CSOs consultations that would ensure that all views, including critical views, are taken into account.
Human Rights Committee’s Concluding Observations on Cambodia
The Concluding Observations on Cambodia's 3rd periodic report were released on 30 March 2022. The State party is requested to provide, by 25 March 2025, information on the implementation of the following recommendations:
- End all acts of harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, and acts of violence against members and supporters of opposition parties;
- Conducte thorough and independent investigations into all allegations of harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrest and acts of violence against members and supporters of opposition parties, in particular in the killing of Sin Khon, and bring the perpetrators to justice;
- End all mass trials against members of the opposition;
- Ensure the full and meaningful enjoyment of electoral rights by everyone, including opposition political candidates;
- Guarantee the freedom to engage in pluralistic political debate, including by facilitating peaceful demonstrations and by refraining from using criminal laws to suppress such right or to exclude opposition candidates from electoral processes;
- Strengthen the judicial and electoral mechanisms to ensure a fair electoral process, particularly in time for the 2022 commune elections and the 2023 national elections.
You can find here all the recommendations given by the Human Rights Committee in the Concluding Observations.