The Human Rights Situation in Cambodia in 2021

Throughout 2021, the human rights situation in the Kingdom of Cambodia (“Cambodia”) continued to deteriorate. An array of repressive tactics was increasingly used to silence civil society, human rights defenders, trade unionists, journalists and political opponents. As a result, the space for exercising fundamental freedoms, including the rights to freedom of association, expression and assembly, was severely diminished.

In the beginning of 2021, the grim realities of the COVID-19 pandemic began to grip Cambodia, as the country experienced its most serious outbreak of COVID-19. Relatively unscathed by restrictive mitigation measures and lockdowns in 2020, Cambodia began implementing necessary, but strict rules to stop the spread of COVID-19, thus impacting individuals’ ability to exercise their fundamental freedoms. Following this outbreak, the Royal Government of Cambodia (“RGC”) passed the Law on Measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other Serious, Dangerous, and Contagious Diseases which gave authorities broad discretionary powers to implement COVID-19 mitigation measures, resulting in the curtailment of human rights and hindered the ability of media outlets critical of the government and its response to the pandemic from exercising their freedom of expression. The RGC also continued a targeted crackdown on those perceived to be affiliated with the former-political opposition – the Cambodia National Rescue Party (“CNRP”) – with scores of former CNRP members convicted in 2021 on fallacious charges. This attempted suffocation of political dissent formed part of the wider campaign against dissenting voices, with a slew of human rights defenders wrongfully imprisoned and convicted on politically motivated charges to quash civic engagement. This restrictive climate has cultivated an atmosphere of fear and intimidation that severely undermines the ability to engage in the dialogue required to foster a healthy democracy. Below is a brief outline of the key human rights issues of 2021 in Cambodia.

I. Political Environment

The year 2021 marked a significant milestone for Cambodia as the country celebrated the 30-year anniversary of the adoption of the Paris Peace Agreements (“the Agreements”) which established Cambodia as a liberal and pluralistic democracy and ended decades long armed conflict and internal political turmoil. The Agreements were a multi-stakeholder effort between Cambodia, the United Nations, and 19 countries to bring peace and stability to Cambodia and to provide a solid foundation for the rule of law where human rights could flourish. Although Cambodia has experienced many great achievements throughout the past 30 years in terms of economic prosperity, hard won democratic and human rights have eroded and government power has been centralized in the hands of a few.

The last few years have been notably characterized by the RGC’s heightened efforts to diminish and intimidate political dissent throughout Cambodia. Following the dissolution of the CNRP by the Supreme Court in 2017, resulting in a de facto one-party state, ex-CNRP members and supporters continue to be the core subjects of harassment by authorities. The use of the judicial system as a tool to intimidate and harass former CNRP members has been a primary strategy of the RGC. 2021 kicked off with the mass trial of over 139 former CNRP members on trumped up and fabricated charges of plotting to overthrow the government for their support of Sam Rainsy’s unsuccessful return to Cambodia at the end of 2019. Relying mainly on social media posts as evidence, nine former CNRP members, all of whom live in exile overseas, were sentenced to 20-25 years imprisonment and stripped of their right to vote and stand for election while five others received sentences of five to seven years imprisonment. The year ended with Thailand Immigration Authorities in Bangkok doing the bidding of the RGC and arresting four former CNRP activists and deporting them back to Cambodia to face criminal charges; all four of them were arrested upon their arrival in Phnom Penh. The former CNRP activists were living in Thailand as refugees in hopes of claiming asylum due to their political persecution in Cambodia.

With national elections upcoming in 2022, many have questioned the integrity of the election process as the crackdown on other opposition parties appears imminent. In September 2021, members of the newly formed political party, the Cambodian National Love Party, reported excessive monitoring by authorities when attempting to conduct party activities with authorities even forbidding and threatening them from hanging up party banners ahead of the election. Shortly thereafter, the Interior Ministry denied official party registration to the Cambodian National Heart Party (“CNHP”) alleging fraudulent thumbprints on the party’s registration documentation and filed a lawsuit against the CNHP founding members.

II. Legislative developments

The RGC has frequently used a restrictive legislative framework to curtail fundamental freedoms and human rights across the country. In 2021, more concerning legislative developments were observed particularly with the passage of the Sub-Decree on the Establishment of the National Internet Gateway (“NIG Sub-Decree”) in February 2021. The NIG Sub-Decree was passed without input from relevant stakeholders and grants the RGC with unchecked powers to engage in mass surveillance of all online activity and block content that vaguely affects “safety, national revenue, social order, dignity, culture, traditions, and customs,” impermissibly infringing upon the rights to freedom of expression and privacy. In April 2021, following the most serious community outbreak of COVID-19 in Cambodia, the RGC passed the Law on Measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other Serious, Dangerous, and Contagious Diseases (“COVID-19 Law”) which granted sweeping powers to authorities to adopt exceptional measures to protect public health, thus resembling a state of emergency law. The COVID-19 Law gave the RGC broad discretionary powers in imposing “administrative or other measures” to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic which the potential to violate the rights to freedom of association, assembly, and expression. Worryingly, it imposed excessive prison sentences for breaches of the law: up to 10 years imprisonment for individuals and 20 years imprisonment for organized groups.

Other legislative developments this year included the draft Law on Access to Information which is set for final endorsement and review by the Justice Ministry after undergoing a participatory process with civil society, a first draft of a law on the establishment of a National Human Rights Institution, and a Prakas which bans monks from participating in protests which affect the “dignity” of the monkhood. Notably, in November 2021, the RGC swiftly promulgated a constitutional amendment which bars individuals who have multiple citizenship from holding top political office positions, in a move that was seen widely as targeting the former CNRP.

III. Freedom of expression

CCHR’s Fundamental Freedoms Monitor Project (“FFMP”) recorded in its Civil Society Organization (“CSO”) and Trade Union (“TU”) Leaders Survey the lowest level ever of CSO/TU leaders who reported feeling free to exercise their freedom of expression with only 53% of respondents claiming they felt “very free” or “somewhat free” to express themselves. This trend signifies the shrinking space for freedom of expression in Cambodia as exemplified by the repressive tactics the RGC employed this year to target and silence dissenting speech.

a. Silencing of free media and harassment of journalists

The campaign against free media and journalist, ignited in 2017, continued throughout 2021 with the World Press Freedom Index ranking Cambodia at 144 out of 180 countries in 2021, falling 12 places since 2017. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the targeting of journalists and media outlets over their legitimate and critical reporting. In 2021 alone, six media outlets have had their licenses revoked for their coverage of COVID-19 issues: Sam Prum News, the Cambodia Facebook Journalists Association, K01 TV, Angkor Today, Stoeng Charl Post, and Youth Techo. The virtual absence of independent high-quality journalism, coupled with the continued shutdowns of independent news outlets, has reduced the visibility of social problems in the country and has limited the ability of activists and civil society organizations to gather verifiable information to undertake advocacy actions.

Journalists face many challenges in their work, and are often threatened, arrested, and silenced through fabricated criminal charges for their legitimate journalism. In January 2021, the Phnom Penh Municipal Police Chief issued a directive which banned journalists from broadcasting live, filming, photographing, or recording police while they conduct investigations, surveillance work, or “other duties”, under threat of legal action. In May 2021, the Ministry of Information issued a letter warning journalists to refrain from filming or broadcasting live from within designated “red zones” of the lockdown or otherwise face legal action. In October 2021, the Phnom Penh Municipal Police Commissioner double downed on its earlier directive and instructed all police units to ban journalists from live broadcasting law enforcement activities. Apart from being the targets of overbearing directives which inhibit their legitimate work, independent journalists have endured physical attacks or threats of legal action by third parties, judicial harassment, and intimidation by law enforcement. Authorities have particularly targeted journalists who report on land by confiscating journalists’ smart phones or press cards, threatening legal action, or following journalists as they leave the scene of the dispute. These intimidating tactics utilized by authorities coupled with the passage of the NIG Sub-Decree has fostered a climate of fear and creates a chilling effect on journalistic free expression.

b. Online expression

The past several years have witness a notable increase in the number of citizens being threatened, harassed and even prosecuted for their online activities, illustrated by Cambodia’s score in Freedom House's 'Freedom of the Net' of 43/100 in 2021. The crackdown of online activities increased in 2021 following the announcement by the Information Ministry that it was expanding its monitoring capabilities to include Tik-Tok as well as closed-sourced platforms such as WhatsApp, Messenger, and Telegram. This promise came to fruition when Phal Chanpheakdey, a member of the League for Democracy Party, was charged and placed under police supervision for voice messages on Telegram in which he allegedly criticized the RGC for arresting individuals for expressing their views about COVID-19.

The near elimination of online speech related to COVID-19 has been a principle focus of the RGC throughout 2021. Numerous individuals have been arrested for discussing sensitive issues online related to COVID-19 including Thun Chantha, Mey Sophon, and Thorn Kimsan, three former CNRP members, for criticizing the use of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine on Facebook and Jai Ching for posting on Facebook that Battambang police officers were fining drivers who did not wear masks. The passage of the controversial COVID-19 Law only gave the RGC further cause to crackdown on online speech related to COVID-19 with numerous individuals arrested and charged over their online expression related to COVID-19 issues. For example, three individuals were arrested for expressing opinions on TikTok about Cambodia’s COVID-19 vaccine campaign and a glass cutter, Nov Kloeung, was arrested for criticizing the strict measures put in place during the most serious outbreak of COVID-19 in Cambodia. All four individuals were charged under Article 11 of the COVID-19 Law with “obstructing the implementation of COVID-19 measures”. These intimidation tactics have caused a widespread culture of fear and have driven up the utilization of self-censorship among Cambodians.

2021 also witnessed worrying intimidation tactics targeting online speech after the Prime Minister made death threats in a public speech against exiled political analyst, Dr. Seng Sary, for a Facebook post he had made in July 2021 in which he listed six conditions that could be the basis for forming a government in exile. Dr. Sary was later charged with plotting and incitement under the Criminal Code but after several days the Prime Minister backtracked after realizing the analysis was merely hypothetical and called on the courts to halt all criminal proceedings.

IV. Freedom of association

The RGC stepped up its curtailment of freedom of association in 2021. In particular, CSOs, trade union members or leaders, and individuals affiliated with (or believed to be affiliated) with the CNRP, were frequently targeted, facing surveillance, interference, and judicial harassment for exercising their freedom of association. Opposition activists, particularly the former CNRP, remain the most heavily targeted associations in Cambodia. For example, the RGC denying the CNHP registration as a political party on seemingly arbitrary grounds (see section I – Political environment). Excluding the mass trials on dubious charges against the former CNRP members, the Supreme Court denied the political rehabilitation of Choung Chou-Ngy and Nhim Kim Nhol, on baseless allegations that Choung Chou-Ngy prevented people from going to the polls to vote in 2018 and that Nhim Kim Nhol supported the unsuccessful return of Sam Rainsy to Cambodia in 2019. This intolerance towards CNRP apparently hit a tipping point in September 2021, when the Prime Minister infiltrated a private Zoom call held by exiled former CNRP members. The Prime Minister warned the attendees that their communications were being monitored and later claimed he had tapped into their private Zoom conversations approximately 20 times.

In addition to the unrelenting harassment of the former CNRP, former CNRP affiliates continue to be brutally attacked by unidentified individuals in a spontaneous and unprovoked manner. In two particularly egregious incidents, 16-year old Kak Sovann Chhay, whose father is an imprisoned CNRP member, was struck in the head with a brick, suffering a fractured skull and Sin Kohn, a former member of the CNRP youth wing, was attacked at a market by four unknown assailants who beat him with metal rods, causing serous injuries to his head. Regrettably, Sin Khon was brutally murdered in November 2021 by a group of unknown assailants who attacked him with machetes and knives in public near the Wat Chas pagoda in Phnom Penh.

Former CNRP members are not the only targets of these third-party assaults. In September 2021, a Khmer Thavrak activist, Touch Srey Nich, was attacked by four or five unknown assailants who crashed into her as she rode her motorbike down the road. She alleges that in the days before this attack, someone was watching her. These types of physical attacks have a track record of being perpetrated with impunity.

2021 also witnessed continued government surveillance of and interference with the work of CSOs, particularly when association activities related to COVID-19 or environmental issues. Examples include criminal actions taken against CSO members, monitoring of CSO activities, interruption and attempts to stop CSO activities, broad intimidation and harassment of CSO staff, and threats of legal action. In particular, members of a youth group, the Women for Society Association, were briefly detained for collecting thumbprints for a petition calling on the RGC to ease people’s financial burden during the lockdown and a member of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association was arrested for collecting names of informal workers in need of food during the COVID-19 crisis. Notably, the RGC has gassed up its targeting of the environmental group, Mother Nature Cambodia, and arrested and imprisoned three additional members, Sun Ratha, Ly Chandaravuth, Yim Leanghy and charged them with plotting and insulting the King, accusing them of operating the organization with “terrorism funds”. One month later, the Mother Nature Cambodia activists imprisoned in September 2020, were slapped with additional charges of plotting and insulting the King.

Against this backdrop, it is unremarkable that 67% of the CSO/TU leaders surveyed in the FFMP’s CSO/TU leader survey reported monitoring or surveillance of their association in the last year was excessive or interfered with their activities.

V. Freedom of assembly

2021 witnessed a fluctuation in the exercise of the freedom of peaceful assembly by the public as the serious outbreak COVID-19 in the country and resulting lockdowns both prevented and discouraged individuals and groups from peacefully gathering. The majority of peaceful assemblies in 2021 focused on three critical issues: the release of prisoners of conscience (primarily former CNRP members), land rights issues, and issues related to COVID-19 or the RGC’s response to the pandemic.

At the height of the COVID-19 lockdown, individuals living in “red zones” – areas with a high number of COVID cases where it was prohibited to leave the home – gathered to ask for food and economic relief during the strict COVID-19 lockdown that was imposed in Phnom Penh which prevented them from earning a living. The economic impact of the pandemic also led to multiple factories either closing or suspending operations, resulting in factory workers peacefully assembling to demand missing payments or to contest layoffs. While many of these assemblies were unimpeded by authorities, in one instance, COVID-19 was used by authorities to arbitrarily interfere with an assembly under the justification of public health due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Authorities ordered dozens of protesters to disperse when they were attempting to submit a petition to the Ministry of Economy and Finance, despite other assemblies being permitted around Phnom Penh at that time.

Land rights have been hard fought over issues throughout 2021, with hundreds of Cambodians peacefully gathering to protest against forced evictions and demand adequate compensation for their loss of land and livelihoods. While many of these assemblies that took place went unimpeded by authorities, when protests went on for long periods of time or villagers attempted to stop authorities from encroaching on or bulldozing their lands, authorities interfered with the assemblies. In two instances, authorities weaponized the law against villagers to coerce them to stop protesting and to accept the compensation offered to them for their land. In Svay Rieng, two community representatives were arrested and subsequently fined under the COVID-19 Law purportedly over their continued protesting which resulted in many villagers accepting low compensation offers and ceasing their protests over fears they would also be arrested. Similar circumstances occurred in Kandal province at the site of the new Phnom Penh Airport development project where authorities arrested approximately 30 protesting villagers and charged nine of them with incitement only to release them on bail and under judicial supervision after they were forced to sign a contract promising not to protest again.

The Friday Women, a network of family members of detained political activists from the CNRP who frequently hold demonstrations to call for the release of their imprisoned family members, have borne the brunt of state use of force during peaceful assemblies. Authorities have treated Friday Women protests as a thorn in their sides and have ensured a high police presence at their assemblies with nearly every assembly they have held violently broken up. The types of violence inflicted upon the Friday Women include being pushed to the ground, dragged, kicked, and in one egregious incident, being sprayed in the eyes with hand sanitizer. Protests against forcible evictions have also turned ugly this year with one extreme case in June 2021, where around 50 soldiers fired live ammunition at farmers who were protesting the Ministry of Defense’s takeover of state land that locals have farmed for decades. Although soldiers fired at the feet of the protestors, one man was shot in the shoulder and suffered severe injuries.

In light of these issues, it is unsurprising that CCHR’s FFMP recorded in 2021 that only 35% of CSO/TU leaders – the lowest percentage since the FFMP started – felt “very free” or “somewhat free” to peacefully assemble.

VI. Social and economic rights

a. Land rights

Despite UN guidance to ban forced evictions during COVID-19, a severe number of forced evictions have been recorded across Cambodia to pave way for private development projects. Thousands of families have been evicted throughout the year with several thousand hectares of land affected. In the beginning of 2021, Cambodia experienced its most serious wave of the COVID-19 pandemic with cases skyrocketing and the country’s first deaths attributed to COVID-19 reported. These events prompted the RGC to impose restrictions on the general population including quarantine requirements, lockdowns, and curfews all of which require adequate shelter to ensure the safety of the community. Despite the seriousness of the COVID situation, forced evictions have been carried out at increasing rates and have been marked by the use of force, military violence resulting in a farmer being shot, intimidation, and threats by state authorities against evictees, the demolition of houses and farmlands without prior notice by police or private companies, as well as judicial harassment of evicted citizens for protesting against their evictions and demanding adequate compensation.

Particularly egregious cases of forced eviction in 2021 have affected farmers as well as minority groups including indigenous people, ethnic Vietnamese, and Muslim Cham communities. In June 2021, Phnom Penh authorities carried out a mass eviction of over 1,000 families living in floating houses on the Tonle Sap river, many of the residents were ethnic Vietnamese or Muslim Cham who were offered no compensation or resettlement solutions. The Pu Nong indigenous group have also faced forced evictions and loss of communal land on several occasions which gravely affects their identity and cultural traditions. Authorities in Mondulkiri destroyed over 1,000 Pu Nong family homes claiming they were living on State land despite living on the land for generations and a private excavator cleared 53 hectares of their community forest land. The devastating results of forced evictions often cause irreparable harm for years after they occur.

The land rights situation in Cambodia in 2021 has also been characterized by the targeting of land rights defenders and allegations of widespread deforestation and illegal logging. Environmental groups such as the Cambodia Youth Network Association and indigenous Kuy communities have continued to raise the alarm over deforestation after they documented nearly 300 cases of illegal logging of rare timber in Preah Roka Wildlife Sanctuary over a span of two months at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in Cambodia. Later in the year, the Prey Lang Community Network (“PLCN”) documented an increase in forestry crimes with impunity, with one activist asserting that these crimes amount to a “genocide” of the Prey Lang Wildlife sanctuary. Due to their activism, numerous land rights defenders have been targeted or judicially harassed. Several members of the PLCN were forced to sign a contract pledging they would cease their forest monitoring activists whereas other activists, including prominent environmental activist Ouch Leng, have been arrested and detained for documenting the destruction of protected forests with their release contingent upon them signing a contract promising to stop entering the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary.

b. Worker’s rights

The COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating consequences on the labor sector in Cambodia. 2021 witnessed hundreds of employees protesting against their employers to demand missing salaries or owed severance payments due to factories closing down or suspending operations due to a financial downturn caused by COVID-19. Workers in the garment industry have been particularly impacted with workers suffering mass layoffs due to decreased demand for garments or factories shutting down completely, thrusting many Cambodians, mostly women, into poverty and struggling to survive. While the RGC has made appreciable efforts to assist garment workers in 2021, assistance has only been provided as small, one-off payments.

As the pandemic has dragged on, labor and union rights worsened. In May, NagaWorld terminated approximately 1,329 employees, most of whom were union workers and three of whom were union leaders. Many have viewed these terminations as an attempt to eliminate unions within the company. Union members attempted to repeatedly halt the layoffs, including engaging in tripartite negotiations, but ultimately failed. On 18 December 2021, union leaders organized a mass strike of more than 1,000 former and current NagaWorld workers to demand adequate compensation for their layoffs and to reinstate 365 employees. No resolution was reached and the strike lasted until 31 December 2021, where the workers endured harassment from authorities over their protesting and authorities ultimately ended up arresting nine NagaWorld union leaders.

Workers at major airports in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Sihanoukville in April 2020 also endured mass layoffs in what many saw as a way to indirectly dissolve unions. Compensation to the former employees has either been non-existent or unfair and many former employees continued to demand fair compensation throughout 2021, going as far as to sue the airports for violating the Labor Law. In July, approximately 1,176 employees and garbage collectors, many of whom were union members, from the Cintri company were terminated after Cintri transferred its operations to two other companies. Many employees did not receive their contractually mandated severance fee for their termination. Promises were also made to workers that the two new companies would hire them, but the companies did not follow through and many workers complained of union discrimination. These desperate conditions that many Cambodian citizens found themselves in have led to corporate actors taking advantage of the situation, resulting in a mass rollback of hard-earned labor rights.

VII. The justice system

a. Fair trial rights

CCHR continued its monitoring of trials at the Phnom Penh Court of Appeal to assess its compliance with domestic and international fair trial rights standards. Several positive findings were recorded such as respect by the Court for the defendants’ pre-trial right to speak with a lawyer, right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense, right to a public judgment, the principles of legality, and the prohibition of double jeopardy. However, there remain issues of compliance with other fair trial rights, such as the right not to be compelled to confess guilt and to testify against oneself, the right to a public hearing, the right to understand the nature of the charge, the right to legal representation and to be present at trial, evidentiary rights, the right to a reasoned judgment, and the right to the presumption of innocence. CCHR also monitored gender-based violence trials at the Courts of Instance in Kampong Cham and Siem Reap and found that the fair trial rights of the accused in the trials monitored were fully respected by the two target courts, such as their right to a public hearing, their right to be present at trial and to legal representation, their right to be presumed innocent, and their right to a reasoned judgement.

b. Weaponization of the judicial system

The weaponization of the judicial system is best exemplified in surge of judicial actions against former CNRP members and supporters. A clear illustration of this judicial harassment – and, consequently, of the politicization of Cambodia’s judicial system – is the recent mass trial 139 former CNRP members for charges of conspiracy relating to their support for the planned return of exiled party leader, Sam Rainsy (see Section I – Political environment). The hearings were tainted with corruption and politically motivated charges, with many former activists tried in absentia. In one instance, the legal representation provided to the defendants argued for the activists to receive the minimum prison sentence, effectively presuming them guilty of the alleged crimes.

Similarly, prominent union leader Rong Chhun, who was arrested in July 2020 on charges of incitement for a Facebook post about irregular border markings on the Cambodia-Vietnam border, languished in pre-trial detention for nearly 13 months before he was ultimately convicted of the maximum prison sentence of two years. Following persistent condemnation from civil society and the international community over his arrest and conviction, he was eventually released in November 2021 but under two years of judicial supervision.

Multiple Rong Chhun supporters, who were arrested in August and September 2020 for hosting mass demonstrations to call for his release, were also subjected to lengthy stints in pre-trial detention and convicted of politically motivated charges. For example, Chhoeun Daravy, Hun Vannak, Koet Saray, Tha Lavy, Eng Malai, Muong Sopheak, Mean Prommony, and Sar Kanika languished in pre-trial detention for over a year, despite international calls to release the prisoners due to the rapid outbreak of COVID-19 in prisons, before being convicted by the Phnom Penh Municipal Courts in August and October 2021. Additionally, heavily targeted group, Mother Nature Cambodia, endured increased judicial harassment with authorities convicting five activists, Phuon Keoreaksmey, Long Kunthea, Thun Ratha, Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, and Chea Kutin, of incitement and sentenced to 18-20 in prison after spending seven months in pre-trial detention. While serving their sentences they were also charged with plotting and insulting the King and an additional three activists, Sun Ratha, Ly Chandaravuth, and Yim Leanghy were imprisoned on the same charges. Many of the above activists were released in November 2021 under judicial supervision, in what can only be explained as the RGC’s need to revive its tarnished image on the international scene ahead of its chairmanship of ASEAN in 2022.

In another high-profile case, which underscored the ease at which the judiciary is weaponized, is the arrest and imprisonment Kak Sovann Chhay, the 16-year-old autistic son of a jailed senior ex-CNRP member and a Friday Woman activist. Chhay was arrested over private Telegram messages in which the RGC deemed insulting to the government. His trial was marred with violations of his rights including the court denying the defense lawyer’s request to have an expert examine his mental health and the prosecution suggesting he did not have autism because he could use Facebook. In a move that was against Chayy’s best interest as a child with a disability, the court forced him to endure four months of pre-trial detention before convicting him of incitement. He was later released under two years of judicial supervision.

2021 also witnessed the right to a speedy trial taken to the extreme. On two separate occasions individuals were swiftly arrested, charged, sentenced, and imprisoned in a matter of days for engaging in activities or activism that was seen as critical of the government. On 21 August 2021, a farmer, Nuogn Ly was arrested for posting videos on Facebook in which he criticized the export blockades from Thailand; four days later he was convicted, sentenced, and imprisoned for his comments. Shortly thereafter, a journalist, Youn Chhiv, who reported critically on forced evictions and the destruction of crops in Koh Kong Province was accused of spreading ‘fake news’ and charged, convicted, and imprisoned in a single day for incitement over his reporting.

The World Justice Project's Rule of Law Index 2021, which measures rule of law adherence across the globe, ranked Cambodia 138 out of 139 countries, marking a decrease in the rule of law from 2020 where Cambodia was ranked 127 out of 128 countries. Cambodia has consistently been ranked as one of the countries with the weakest rule of law globally, partly because of a serious lack of independence of the courts from the executive.

VIII. Women Rights and Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer (“LGBTIQ”) rights

LGBTIQ rights

Although the LGBTIQ community is not criminalized under domestic legislation, individuals still face discrimination and social exclusion for their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression and sex characteristics. Due to the lack of legislation permitting same-sex marriage, lack of equal adoption rights for LGBTIQ individuals, and the absence of legal gender recognition (recognition under law of an individual’s gender identity if it differs from the sex they were assigned at birth), LGBTIQ individuals are denied the full enjoyment of their civil and political rights. Furthermore, LGBTIQ individuals endure societal discrimination and exclusion, with many individuals experiencing harassment from the public and family members. Despite the RGC accepting nine recommendations directly addressing the rights of LGBTIQ individuals, in Cambodia’s third Universal Periodic Review in 2019, little to no attempts have been made to implement systemic changes in 2021.

Women’s rights

Cambodia’s patriarchal society and its deeply entrenched gender stereotypes and social norms continue to undermine women’s rights and to prevent the achievement of gender equality. Despite the passage of the five-year gender strategic plan, Neary Rattanak V 2019-2023, women continued to endure sexual harassment or were the targets of toxic patriarchal behaviors with little accountability. In March 2021, Moeung Srey Nuon, was summoned for being dressed ‘sexily’ while selling a breast enlargement cream online and made to publicly apologize and sign a contract to stop her online activities. In June, an online lotion vendor, Sean Soleakhena, was arrested for speaking about how sexual harassment affects women’s reputations while selling her products. Also in March, a woman police officer, Sithong Sokha, faced disciplinary action after she posted a picture on her Facebook page of her breastfeeding her baby in her uniform. She was forced to sign a contract to stop breastfeeding in public and in uniform because it affected the honor of the police and the dignity of Khmer women.

Gender-based violence also remains a pervasive problem in Cambodia and victim-blaming mentality sadly permeates the highest levels of government. Indigenous women are frequent targets of rape and murder but law enforcement appears to do little to hold perpetrators accountable. In March 2021, footage showing Duong Chhay, a prominent tycoon, beating his wife went viral on social media. To evade liability for his crimes, he joined the monkhood but shortly after news about his abuse diminished, left the monkhood and has yet to face criminal liability. In May 2021, a young TV presenter, Mean Pich Rita, was arrested and put in pre-trial detention after a powerful tycoon, Oknha Heng Sear, brought a suit against her accusing her of stabbing him in his car. It was later discovered that Heng Sear attempted to rape Mean Pich. After she filed a counterclaim against the tycoon for attempted rape, she was released on bail and later acquitted of all charges but her perpetrator continues to walk free. Several incidents of violence against women perpetrated by military officials have also been recorded in 2021, for example, a military police officer, Sron Pich Raksmey, escaped from the police in Kampong Thom after stabbing his ex-wife, causing her serious injuries and in November 2021, two military officials were arrested and charged for torturing two 12-year old girls who worked at one of the officials home for the death of their puppy.

Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted women including, increased domestic violence as a result of loss of work and lockdowns, cases of rape at the Chattalysak quarantine center, lack of access to pre-natal care for pregnant women, and no financial assistance to entertainment workers whose livelihoods have been heavily impacted by COVID restrictions.


The human rights situation continued to deteriorate in 2021, particularly regarding fundamental freedoms, journalistic freedom of expression, land rights, and due process rights. Subsequently, 2021 witnessed a widespread crackdown across society against anyone critical or opposing to governmental policies, ushering in a deeper culture of fear which continued to permeate Cambodia and spaces for exercising human rights continued to be severely diminished. Land rights remain prevalent across Cambodia as thousands are set to lose their homes and livelihoods with little to no recourse. Workers’ rights were also hard-hit this year as the COVID-19 pandemic provided companies with an excuse to union bust with little compensation to the victims. It is imperative that the RGC respects its human rights commitments by immediately ceasing the ongoing attack against all voices of dissent in the country, releasing and dropping all charges against those arbitrarily targeted and detained for legitimately exercising their fundamental freedoms, as well as ensuring all existing and new laws are compatible with international human rights standards.