The Human Rights Situation in Cambodia in 2014

The human rights situation in Cambodia remained dire in 2014, even as Cambodians became increasingly active in demanding respect for their human rights and fundamental freedoms. The Royal Government of Cambodia (“RGC”) regularly failed to uphold the rights of its citizens, and instead continued to suppress criticism. During 2013 and 2014, Cambodia was rocked by large-scale protests and violent crackdowns, when garment and other workers took to the streets in huge numbers to demand, among other things, higher minimum wages. Workers’ protests dovetailed with others led by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (“CNRP”) during its boycott of the National Assembly following disputed 2013 national elections that continued until July 2014. Several demonstrations were violently dispersed, leading to the deaths of several protestors and bystanders and a number of arrests. Important agreements have been reached with unions since early 2014, leading to wage increases, and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (“CPP”) and CNRP forged a political deal, leading to the CNRP’s return to parliament. Human rights activists, including land and housing rights activists and journalists voicing criticism of the RGC were harassed, arrested and faced criminal charges intended to intimidate and silence them.

Freedom of Assembly and Association

Freedom of peaceful assembly was substantially restricted. In January 2014, the RGC announced that the right to protest and hold demonstrations had been put on hold until “public order and security are restored.”1 Access to Freedom Park, a public space specially designated for the airing of opinions at public gatherings, was blocked. These restrictions were imposed following a crackdown by the security forces on a gathering of garment workers demanding an increased minimum wage. 2 On 2 January 2014, five monks were arrested along with ten union activists and garment workers at Yak Jin factory on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Police officers were seen beating demonstrators during the arrests. 3 On the morning of 3 January 2014, another thirteen people were arrested during a protest on Veng Sreng Boulevard. Following angry responses from the remaining protesters, security forces indiscriminately fired live ammunition into the crowd. Four people were killed, and dozens of others were injured. The whereabouts of 16-year-old Khem Sophat, who a witness reported having seen shot in the torso, are still unknown.

On 10 November 2014, seven women activists from the Boeung Kak Lake community, Nget Khun, Tep Vanny, Song Sreyleap, Kong Chantha, Phan Chhunreth, Bo Chhorvy, and Nong Sreng were arrested, charged with obstructing public traffic, tried and convicted within 36 hours, receiving a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a US$500 fine.4 They had been protesting, calling on the authorities to take action to remedy flooding in their community. The area has suffered flooding problems since 2008, when the lake was filled with sand by the Shukaku Inc Company for a real estate development. A further three women and a monk faced similar treatment the following day, detained while peacefully protesting outside the courthouse for the release of their fellow activists and hastily convicted of obstructing public officials.

Meach Sovannara, Tep Narin, Ouk Pich Samnang, Sum Puthy and Key Kim of the CNRP were arrested and charged with insurrection in connection to violence that occurred in July 2014 during protests calling for the re-opening of Freedom Park in Phnom Penh. A CCHR team attended a bail hearing of the forenamed five individuals on 25 December 2014. In the case of Meach Sovannara, bail was denied on the grounds that if released he was likely to engage in protests and threaten public order, whilst bail was denied to Tep Narin and others on the vague basis that they may fail to appear in court if summoned or cause public disorder. All five were denied bail again for the same reasons on 15 January 2015. As noted by the Special Rapporteur,5 the timing of the arrests in the midst of negotiations on reforming the National Election Committee suggested possible political motives.

The right to freedom of association is protected under Cambodian law. Article 36 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia (“Constitution”) provides that Khmer citizens shall have the right to “form and be members of trade unions,”6 while Article 37 guarantees the right to strike and engage in non-violent demonstrations. Furthermore, Article 266 of the Labor Law stipulates that workers and employers have the right to form professional organizations for the exclusive purpose of studying, promoting the ir interests and protecting the rights of the persons covered by the organization’s statutes. 7

In early January 2014, at least 50 members of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers and Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions (“CATU”) were fired from several factories in the Manhattan Special Economic Zone in Svay Rieng province, allegedly for participating in strikes that occurred in December 2013.8 Moreover, the RGC stated that, if unions participated in further strikes, they would have their licenses suspended or cancelled, while union leaders could face potential lawsuits.9 After the garment workers’ protests in January, Rong Chhun, head of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association (“CITA”), was summoned by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for questioni ng about incitement of criminal acts and social disturbance.10

Freedom of Expression

The judicial system was frequently used to harass individuals critical of the RGC. Human rights defenders, journalists, union leaders and community representatives faced court summons and charges, including for incitement or criminal damage relating to land or labour disputes. Cambodia dropped one place in the World Press Freedom Index to become ranked 144th out of 180 countries, but subsequently rose to 139th in 2015.

In October 2014, a journalist in Kratie province became the thirteenth journalist killed in Cambodia since 1994 while attempting to report on illegal logging.11 The individuals suspected in the crime include members of the police and army.

The RGC last released a draft of the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (the “LANGO”) in December 2011.12 The draft law contains mandatory and complex registration for all civil society organizations, includes excessive restrictions on foreign NGOs and contains vague terminology that enables the RGC to delay indefinitely or deny the registration of critical NGOs. After widespread objections from civil society regarding potential abuse of the law to target critics and severely curtail freedom of expression, the RGC made a commitment to postpone the LANGO pending further consultation. However in late 2014 and early 2015, officials of the RGC have made a series of announcements indicating that the law may be adopted in the near future, raising concerns anew that the law may be introduced without any consultation with civil society.13

Human Rights Defenders

The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (“HRDs”)14 reaffirms the right to promote and strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms, 15 the right to freedom of expression16 and peaceful assembly,17 and the right to form, join and participate in non-governmental organizations, associations or groups.18 In addition, according to Article 12(2), the relevant authorities must protect HRDs from arrest, violence, threats, retaliation and any discrimination arising from their HRD activities and the declaration emphasizes that HRDs ought to be protected under national law.19 The RGC has not developed any policies or independent mechanisms to protect HRDs, who faced threats, harassment and physical violence.

The practice of coercing HRDs to sign statements agreeing not to participate in further “illegal” activities, such as protests, was common in 2014. On 6 January 2014, five activists from Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak lake community were arrested as they were marching to the French Embassy to demand the release of Vorn Pao and other imprisoned peaceful demonstrators. After their arrest they were told that they would be released providing they signed a statement agreeing not to engage in further protests.20 On 21 January 2014, 11 human rights activists and peaceful protesters were arrested while engaging in a demonstration calling for the release of 23 people arrested during the crackdown on garment workers earlier that month. They were arrested by Daun Penh security guards and taken to the Phnom Penh Municipal Police Station. Again, after signing a statement stating that they would not incite or take part in further “illegal activities” or demonstrations, they were released.21 In 2014, CCHR documented five cases of this practice affecting a total of 32 individuals. The practice dangerously restricts HRDs’ ability to carry out their work as it introduces the constant threat of arrest.

During Cambodia’s second Universal Periodical Review (“UPR”) in the UN Human Rights Council on 28 January 2014, several states recommended that the RGC improve protection of HRDs, for instance by engaging in a meaningful national dialogue with HRDs, complying with international freedom of expression standards and halting any acts of intimidation or harassment.22

Business and Human Rights

The garment industry in Cambodia arose following the establishment of a free market economy in 1993. In the following two decades the industry surged to become the country’s largest foreign exchange earner, making up approximately 80% of the country’s total exports. According to the Ministry of Labor23 the shoe, garment and textile sector currently employs approximately 620,000 and earned $5.5 billion in revenue in 2013.

Difficulties facing factory workers in Cambodia are numerous. A number of factors including poor ventilation and exhaustion often cause workers to faint in factories, sometimes in large numbers, with reported fainting incidents jumping 109% from 2013 to 2014.24 According to the International Labour Organization’s Better Factories Cambodia Programme, data gathered between May 2013 and April 2014 revealed a “mixed picture of working conditions and respect for worker rights.” For example, the report notes a slight increase in the correct payment of wages, but also a four percent increase in the number of factories with confirmed child labour cases.25

Following the large-scale protests led by garment and other workers in 2013 and 2014, minimum wages for garment works increased to $128 a month for full time work; $8 above the poverty line for those living in Phnom Penh as defined26 by the Ministry of Planning.

Fair Trial Rights

2014 was a year of set backs for fair trial rights and judicial independence. Following promises of fundamental judicial reform by the RGC since 2005, in June 2014 the National Assembly passed the Law on the Organization and Functioning of the Courts, the Law on the Organization and Functioning of the Supreme Council of the Magistracy and the Law on the Statute of Judges and Prosecutors. The drafting of these laws was completed in secret, without any prior publication or consultation with civil society, the public or other stakeholders.

The laws grant excessive powers to the Ministry of Justice and Supreme Council of the Magistracy. There are grave concerns about the level of influence the Minister of Justice now has over judges and prosecutors, violating the separation of powers undermining judicial independence. In particular these laws violate articles 51, 128 and 132 of the Constitution, and article 14(1) of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, to which Cambodia is a party. Since these laws were introduced there has been a worrying level of involvement of the executive in judicial decisions.

Land Rights

Land rights violations remained some of the most prominent and prevalent form of human rights violations in 2014. Despite protection under international and domestic law, with large swathes of the country leased for commercial exploitation through economic land concessions (“ELCs”), insecurity of tenure due to a widespread lack of formal land titles and weak rule of law continued to lead to land disputes.

Often, individuals challenging land claims by powerful business interests were met with harassment and attacks, with the RGC typically failing to hold perpetrators to account. CCHR addressed these issues in an open letter in August 2014, calling on the RGC to implement strategies at every level of government and in the private sector to meaningfully deal with the status of ELCs and resolve disputes.27 26 Sean Teehan, ‘Poverty line $120, gov’t says,’ Phnom Penh Post, (3 October 2014), 27 CCHR, ‘CCHR Open Letter Regarding Addressing Land Disputes in the Kingdom of Cambodia’ Media Release (21st August 2014), 1&id=3.

On 10 November 2014, seven women activists from the Boeung Kak Lake community were arrested, charged with obstructing public traffic, tried and convicted within 36 hours, receiving a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a US$500 fine.28

On 18 November 2014, Mr. Ly Srea Kheng and his daughter Ms. Ly Seav Minh were arrested in the context of a long-lasting land dispute with the Khun Sear Import Export Company after they refused to vacate a plot of land in the Boeung Kak 1 area of Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kork district, which they ha ve inhabited since 1982.29 The family has suffered death threats, violent attacks and intimidation as a result of the dispute.30 Police arrested Mr Kheng without showing a warrant, in violation of Article 38 of the Constitution, and took him away without giving him time to get properly dressed. According to information received by CCHR’s lawyers representing the family, later that evening, a Khun Sear Company representative contacted Mr Kheng’s son to continue negotiations over the land, suggesting an abuse of the judicial process to pressure the family. Kheng was bailed on December 5, but bail was denied to his daughter on 5 January, on the vague grounds that it was necessary to prevent the commission of further crimes, prevent the destruction of evidence or threats against witnesses. Mr. Kheng and his family have attempted in vain to register their land with the authorities. On the other hand, authorities have not taken any actions on the complaint by Mr Kheng on the threats and attacks directed against his family by Khun Sear security guards.

LGBT Rights

While homosexuality is not criminalized in Cambodia, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (“LGBT”) people told CCHR that they suffered from discrimination and abuse resulting from their sexual orientation or gender identity (“SOGI”). In June 2014 CCHR met with the UN Special Rapporteur on Cambodia to highlight the need for mainstreaming SOGI rights in the strategic policies of all government ministries. Whilst the RGC has not taken specific legislative or administrative measures to protect against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity, the Ministry of Women Affairs has included the rights of LGBT people in its five-year Strategic Plan for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women in Cambodia 2014-2018 (also known by its Khmer title: Neary Ratanak IV, meaning ‘precious gem’).31 Furthermore, in 2014 the Ministry of Women Affairs released a policy brief entitled ‘Rights: Vulnerable Groups of Women and Girls,’32 focusing specifically on discrimination issues faced by lesbian and bisexual women and transgender people. This is a major landmark in official policy on tackling discrimination of LGBT people. Specifically, the plan includes activities to raise awareness of LGBT people’s equal right to education, and prepare strategies in consultation with LGBT people on ending discrimination against LGBT people in schools, the work place, communities and families.

Despite the above-mentioned positive steps, there is no anti-hate crime or legislation prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity in Cambodia. 33 Similarly, no legislative or administrative measures have been taken that protect against discrimination in employment.34 There is currently no legal recognition of same-sex unions; however, such unions are also not explicitly banned. There has been no indication by the RGC that it will enact legislation to explicitly recognize same-sex unions in the near future.