The Human Rights Situation in Cambodia in 2020

Throughout 2020, the human rights situation in the Kingdom of Cambodia (“Cambodia”) continued to deteriorate. An array of repressive tactics were 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 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic sent shock waves around the globe. While Cambodia did not face high rates of infection or death in comparison to other countries, the economic impact of the pandemic on the export and tourism driven economy has been detrimental, with thousands of workers facing unemployment or suspension, leading to widespread financial insecurity and poverty. In addition, the Royal Government of Cambodia (“RGC”) was accused of using the COVID-19 pandemic to ignore its human rights commitments. The RGC continued a targeted crackdown on those perceived to be affiliated with the former-political opposition – the Cambodia National Rescue Party (“CNRP”). This attempted suffocation of political dissent formed part of the wider campaign against dissenting voices. Freedom of expression faced considerable violations, especially online expression, with a slew of individuals arrested for their legitimate online expression, as was the free media, with multiple journalists arrested over the year. There was a crackdown on freedom of assembly, with an increase in excessive use of state force as well as the arbitrary arrests of peaceful protesters. Further, freedom of association suffered with an array of attacks on the political opposition, trade unions, and civil society organizations (“CSOs”). Environmental and youth groups were systematically targeted in 2020 in efforts to quash their activism.

The Law on the Management of the Nation in a State of Emergency was introduced as a concerning addition to Cambodia’s legal framework, and upcoming legislative changes are poised to further inhibit the exercise of fundamental freedoms both online and offline. 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 2020 in Cambodia.

I. Political environment

The last few years have been 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.

Throughout 2020, numerous former CNRP members were summonsed, arrested and charged, as recorded by CCHR. Threats, harassment and surveillance were also frequent. The use of the judicial system as a tool to intimidate and harass has been a primary strategy of the RGC throughout 2020. In November 2020, over 110 former members or supporters of the CNRP were summonsed on unsubstantiated charges relating to their support for the planned return of exiled party leader Sam Rainsy to Cambodia in November 2019, and were required to attend a trial hearing on 26 November 2020. Following this hearing, new hearing dates were set for 14 January and 4 March 2021 after splitting the defendants into two groups based on charges.

Former president of the CNRP, Kem Sokha was arrested over three years ago in 2017 on charges of conspiring with a foreign power and treason. His long-awaited trial did not begin until 15 January 2020. The trial has already raised serious concerns with regards to fair trial rights. Trial monitors, observers and journalists were initially blocked by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, and United Nations experts said the entire process had been “tainted by irregularities, and clear neglect of international human rights law and Cambodian law”. In response, the Court granted public access for CSOs and some independent media, with certain limitations. The trial was expected to last three months but was suspended in March 2020 due to concerns over COVID-19. In June 2020, a request for the trial to restart was allegedly rejected by the Court, despite the courts in Cambodia generally operating as usual at the time. Kem Sokha’s trial had yet to resume at the end of 2020, raising concerns that his trial was being purposefully – and unjustifiably – postponed, in clear contravention to his legitimate right to be tried without undue delay.

II. Legislative developments

In recent years, the RGC has increasingly diminished fundamental freedoms and democracy across Cambodia with a restrictive legislative framework. In 2020, this trend has continued, with several concerning legislative developments. This included the Law on the Management of the Nation in State of Emergency, promulgated in April 2020, which was hastily drafted and passed without consultation, and which grants the RGC unfettered powers to restrict the exercise of fundamental freedoms during a state of emergency. Further, three draft pieces of legislation were leaked that threaten to further undermine human rights in Cambodia, namely the draft Law on Public Order, the draft Sub-Decree on the Establishment of the National Internet Gateway, and the updated draft Law on Cybercrime. If passed, the draft Law on Public Order would criminalize many everyday activities of the public, limiting the fundamental freedoms of expression, association and assembly, and exacerbate discrimination against marginalized groups. Further, the two internet-related draft laws would grant the RGC full control over online activities, authorize mass surveillance and online censorship in a diminishment of internet freedom in Cambodia.

III. Freedom of expression

Freedom of expression was unrelentingly suppressed in 2020, characterized largely by an attack on online expression. A series of cases forming a pattern of arbitrary and retaliatory prosecutions of critical voices, including those of human rights defenders, journalists and the political opposition, continued unabated.

3.1. Silencing free media and harassment of journalists

The campaign against free media and journalists, ignited in 2017, continued throughout 2020. The World Press Freedom Index ranked Cambodia at 144 out of 180 countries in 2020 – falling 12 places since 2017. The virtual absence of independent high-quality reporting, a direct consequence of the mass shutdown of independent media outlets in Cambodia, has reduced the visibility of social problems in the country but also limited the ability of non-governmental organizations (“NGOs”) to gather and verify information, thereby negatively impacting their ability to undertake certain advocacy actions.

Journalists have repeatedly been the target of sustained attacks for exercising their freedom of expression, and were often silenced through the application of arbitrary criminal charges for their legitimate journalism in 2020. 2020 has seen eleven journalists arrested and three of them convicted (Sovann Rithy, Sok Oudom and Ros Sokhet) under charges of incitement. The harassment of two additional journalists (former RFA reporters, Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin) also continued throughout 2020 through seemingly never-ending criminal proceedings. The judicial harassment that these individuals face through court processes sends a clear warning to those who dare to exercise their fundamental right to freedom of expression, fostering an environment of intimidation and censorship. Moreover, through 2020, the RGC withdrew four media licenses of media outlets, three of which belonged to the above arrested journalists, further reducing already dismal numbers of independent media outlets in the country.

3.2. Online speech and internet freedom

The last four years have seen a noted 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 on the Net’ dropping to 43/100 in 2020 from 48/100 in 2016. CCHR’s Fundamental Freedoms Monitoring Project noted that 53% of all restrictions to the freedom of expression occurred online in 2020.

A slew of individuals have been arrested and jailed for their various online activities, including factory worker and unionist Soy Sros who shared her labor rights concerns via Facebook, business owner Thai Sreyneang who was arrested for posting photos on Facebook selling products wearing revealing clothing, and rappers Kea Sokun and Long Puthera for their songs on social issues. Further, 2020 witnessed a rise in rhetoric regarding ‘fake news’, with over 40 individuals accused of allegedly spreading ‘fake news’ online, particularly in relation to COVID-19.

The blocking of certain websites and online media outlets has also contributed to limiting the flow of information around Cambodia, further restricting internet freedom. Additionally, the RGC made multiple declarations about the monitoring of social media by the authorities. While it is lawful for governments to monitor public speech, the repercussions are likely to raise additional concerns for freedom of expression. The internet is being used as a weapon and a magnifying glass through which the RGC can monitor ordinary citizens and stifle dissenting opinions. During 2020, the RGC introduced two draft laws as mentioned above, the draft Sub-Decree on the Establishment of the National Internet Gateway and the draft Law on Cybercrime. If passed, these laws would allow for mass data retention of individuals and monitoring. Additionally, the two laws would form a legal framework that allows significant RGC surveillance and control of online activities, stifling internet freedom, including freedom of expression online.

3.3. Self-censorship

CCHR’s survey of CSO and trade union leaders (“CSO/TU leaders”) in October 2020 recorded the highest percentage (89%) of self-censorship from CSO and TU leaders yet recorded. 79% of respondents to the survey also reported feeling unsafe to impart information through social media. Additionally, a public poll undertaken by CCHR in October 2020 revealed that most respondents felt “somewhat unfree” to exercise their freedom of expression.

Intimidation tactics, including the threat of criminal charges and arrest, are causing a widespread culture of fear and driving up the utilization of self-censorship. Upholding freedom of expression is vital to enable citizens to make informed choices, to participate actively in democratic processes, and to help ensure that powerful interests are held to account in line with the rule of law.

IV. Freedom of association

The RGC stepped up its curtailment of freedom of association in 2020. 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. In addition to the continued harassment of the former political opposition (see section I – Political environment), CCHR has recorded nine incidents of spontaneous and unprovoked violence against CNRP affiliates by unidentified individuals in 2020. Unfortunately, there has been a lack of justice and redress for all cases of violence against individuals affiliated with the CNRP.

2020 witnessed continued government surveillance of and interference with the work of CSOs. 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 CCHR’s 2020 survey of CSO and TU leaders, 89% of respondents reported that they self-censor, the largest proportion of respondents reporting self-censorship to date. Also 79% of respondents reported feeling unsafe to impart information through social media, 40% reported authorities engaging in monitoring or surveillance of their organization’s activities, and 29% believe that their organization’s communications are being monitored. These numbers seem to show that as the RGC’s intolerance for criticism grows, so does its distrust of CSOs.

Trade union members have faced arrest, violence and harassment. President of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, Rong Chhun, was arrested on 31 July 2020 for a statement he made concerning the Cambodia-Vietnam border. He was subsequently charged with incitement to cause social unrest under Article 495 of the Criminal Code, and denied bail by the Court of Appeal. Cambodian Independent Teachers Association President, Ouk Chhayavy, was attacked by unknown assailants on bikes after visiting him.

This year has seen a particular increase in attacks on youth activists and environmental human rights defenders and associations, characterized by judicial harassment, intimidation and arbitrary restrictions. For example, members from the Mother Nature Cambodia environmental movement (Thun Ratha, Long Kunthea and Phuon Keo Reaksmey), members from the youth group Khmer Thavrak (Hun Vannak, Chhoeun Daravy, Tha Lavy and So Metta), and members from the Khmer Student Intelligent League Association (Mean Prommony and Moung Sopheak) were all arrested in August and September 2020 on politically-motivated charges for exercising their legitimate fundamental freedoms and sent to pre-trial detention. The Court of Appeal denied their bail in October and December 2020.

V. Freedom of assembly

2020 witnessed an increase in the exercise of the freedom of peaceful assembly by the public. In particular, assemblies by factory workers facing financial stress from COVID-19 and gatherings of communities affected by land disputes have been common. Further, there have been many assemblies by groups advocating for the release of individuals detained on perceived political charges, such as family members calling for the release of detained former-CNRP members, and groups calling for the release of prominent union leader Rong Chhun.

In parallel, 2020 has seen a worrying increase in interference with and restrictions of peaceful assemblies, and arrests of protesters have been frequent. For example, on 31 July 2020, union leader Rong Chhun was arrested, and over 10 people were subsequently imprisoned for taking part in peaceful protests calling for his release in the following weeks. This upsurge in interference is also reflected in CCHR’s October 2020 CSO/TU leaders survey results which show an increasingly closed environment for freedom of assembly, with only 49% of CSO and TU leaders reporting feeling “very free” or “somewhat free” to exercise the freedom of assembly.

Concerningly, authorities were recorded exercising excessive use of force at 16 peaceful assemblies in violation of international human rights standards, according to which the use of force by law enforcement officials should be exceptional and only occur in certain narrowly defined circumstances, namely when “strictly necessary” and for the purpose of performing their legitimate duties. Multiple of these incidents have targeted the Friday Women – a group of predominantly women family members of detained CNRP activists who have been peacefully protesting for their relatives’ release in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court most Fridays since 19 June 2020. For example, on 29 December 2020, the Friday Women assembled outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court during a trial for 21 former CNRP officials, and police forcibly arrested one woman protester, violently carrying her by each limb and pushing her into the back of a police car.

On the 29th Anniversary of the Paris Peace Agreements Day, on 23 October 2020, violence was used by authorities against peaceful protestors gathering near the Chinese Embassy. Multiple forceful arrests were made with three individuals sent to pre-trial detention. The crackdown on this assembly also led to interferences with journalists documenting the event, with one journalist having his camera confiscated and multiple threatened with the same. Further, CCHR staff who were monitoring the event were threatened with confiscation of phones and chased away from the scene by district security guards.

The interference with and threats against assembly monitors formed a highly concerning trend at the conclusion of 2020. In December, multiple instances of assembly monitors being warned, threatened and prevented from monitoring were recorded, notably at gatherings outside high-profile trials at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.

VI. Social and economic rights

6.1. Land rights

Land rights abuses continue to be among the most prevalent human rights violations occurring in Cambodia. Out of the 191 assemblies that CCHR’s monitoring team recorded as having taken place during 2020, 63 (or 33%) of them were assemblies regarding land rights. Illegal land grabs and forced evictions are of extreme concern, with very little done to bring justice for victims. CCHR’s research in 2020 highlighted that communities face significant barriers in achieving resolutions to land disputes and holding corporations accountable, predominantly due to a lack of commitment, engagement and transparency by the RGC and companies to resolving land disputes; a lack of knowledge about land rights; a lack of available domestic remedies that meet human rights standards; and communities being hindered from advocating for their rights.

Further, despite UN guidance to ban forced evictions during COVID-19, a high number of forced evictions have been recorded across Cambodia, with hundreds of families reporting being evicted since January 2020. Not only are individuals being forcibly evicted, but there have also been reports of corporations clearing farming and traditional lands while communities were complying with ‘stay at home’ orders during the COVID-19 outbreak and not monitoring their properties. For example, in May 2020, Vietnamese rubber company Hoang Anh Gia Lai cleared land earmarked for 12 local indigenous communities in Ratanakiri province, including spirit mountains, hunting areas and burial grounds, despite promising to return the land to the communities in September 2015.

Another concerning land rights trend witnessed in the latter half of 2020 is the mass reallocation of public state land to private state land, and the subsequent granting of the land to private actors. This unjustifiable reclassification of land is commonly achieved through sub-decrees which, conveniently, do not attract Parliamentary oversight and require little in terms of transparency. For example, in October 2020, it was revealed that the government had granted through a sub-decree 600 hectares of state land in Preah Sihanouk to Ly Arporn, the daughter of CPP Senator Ly Yong Phat and wife of tycoon Seng Nhak, for a tourism project. Senator Ly Yong Phat, Seng Nhak and their companies have been notorious for land rights violations in relation to sugar plantations. It was further revealed in 2020 that the RGC has granted hundreds of hectares of Boeng Tamok lake – one of Phnom Penh’s last remaining, and largest natural lakes – to be filled in for development, posing detrimental risks for both the environment and the human rights of those who live and work around the lake.

Land rights defenders remain the subjects of judicial harassment and intimidation as a result. For example, on 14 August 2020, land rights defender Um Sophy was convicted of incitement related to a 2008 land dispute: authorities alleged that she encouraged villagers to cultivate crops on contested land. She was handed a one-year suspended prison sentence and ordered to pay one million riels in compensation.

6.2. Workers’ rights

The partial withdrawal of the European Union’s (“EU”) preferential Everything But Arms (“EBA”) trade agreement with Cambodia came into effect on 12 August 2020. The decision was made by the European Commission in February 2020 due to “serious and systematic violations of the human rights principles enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”, with the Commission stating they would not stand by a Cambodia with “democracy eroded, human rights curtailed and free debate silenced”. The EBA has played an important role in Cambodia’s economic growth, and the EU is Cambodia’s second largest trading partner, with exports to the EU accounting for 17.3% of Cambodia’s total trade. This partial withdrawal means that some of Cambodia’s typical export products including garments, footwear and travel goods – which make up approximately 20% of Cambodia’s annual exports to the EU – are now subject to full customs duties. The withdrawal marked a tipping point in the Cambodian human rights crisis and has resulted in Cambodia losing partial access to a scheme upon which thousands of ordinary labor workers, their families and the economy depended, with severe repercussions expected to be felt on the livelihoods of many Cambodians and their labor rights in the country.

Further, the COVID-19 pandemic has detrimentally impacted workers in the country, as hundreds of thousands of workers lost their jobs as factories, tourism and entertainment businesses closed across the country. Unfortunately, the desperate conditions many workers found themselves in has resulted in the mass roll-back of labor rights, as corporate actors have taken advantage of the situation. Reports surfaced of workplaces systematically reducing unionized labor by targeting union members under the cover of COVID-19 terminations. There have also been reports of employees working excessive hours in poor conditions in desperate attempts to keep jobs, as hundreds of unemployed workers compete for shifts. While the RGC has made some appreciable efforts to assist workers during this time (for example, providing out of work allowances), assistance has only been provided to certain sectors and any financial assistance has fallen below the poverty line, with small, one-off payments. Further, there has been no significant action taken to prevent – and reverse – the rollback of labor rights.

VII. The justice system – Fair trial rights

In 2020, CCHR continued its monitoring of cases before the Court of Appeal and their compliance with domestic and international fair trial rights. While the team recorded several positive findings, there remains issues of compliance with certain judicial guarantees, such as the right not to be compelled to confess guilt; the right to a public hearing; the right to understand the nature and cause of the charge; the right to legal representation and to be present at trial; the rights of juveniles; evidentiary rights; and the presumption of innocence.

Excessive recourse to pre-trial detention also remains problematic. In August 2020, it was reported that only 27% of the detainees across Cambodia’s 28 prisons had received a final verdict on their cases, leaving 37% awaiting the outcome of their appeals and 35% in pre-trial detention. During 2020, the RGC did make a concerted effort to reduce pre-trial detention, prison overcrowding and delays in trial times with a campaign to clear court case backlog, reportedly clearing 89% of pending cases between May and December. However, there has been concern that fair trial rights and due process have been overlooked in pursuit of speedier trials and shorter case processing times. Furthermore, the campaign has highlighted issues of discrimination as it has not been implemented uniformly across all of those awaiting trial. Those detained on political charges or for their dissenting opinions, including members of the political opposition and human rights defenders, have not received the benefit of this campaign. A key example is the excessive delay of the trial of former opposition leader Kem Sokha, as mentioned above.

The World Justice Projects’ Rule of Law Index 2020, which measures rule of law adherence across the globe, ranked Cambodia 127 out of 128 countries, marking no improvement from recent years. 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. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer (“LGBTIQ”) rights

Although the LGBTIQ community is not criminalized under domestic legislation, resulting in a level of relative visibility in Cambodia, individuals still face discrimination and social exclusion for their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression and sex characteristics (“SOGIESC”). 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 not guaranteed the full enjoyment of their civil and political rights. Furthermore, LGBTIQ individuals are subjected to societal discrimination and exclusion in their daily lives. The general public’s perception of LGBTIQ individuals continues to be discriminatory, stemming from entrenched cultural norms, with many individuals experiencing harassment from members of the public and their own family members.

In Cambodia’s third Universal Periodic Review (“UPR”) in 2019, nine of the 198 recommendations addressed to Cambodia directly mentioned the rights of LGBTIQ individuals, marking the first time that SOGIESC rights were addressed as part of the UPR process of Cambodia. All nine SOGIESC recommendations were accepted by the RGC, though little has been done to implement these in 2020. The RGC however did show some intention towards implementing an anti-discrimination law, with Keo Remy, President of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, stating “the community and families who have children and family members of those who show gender identity crisis with homosexual tendency, please recognize the truth and avoid using physical violence, insults, or evicting their children from home or psychologically oppressing them. Please give them freedom and recognition. If we are good citizens who show the community and society and make them understand that homosexuality is in our nature, I think that the government, especially the legislative institutions, will draft a law to support all of you.” However, though encouraging, these words alone are insufficient, and it is imperative that the commitment to the UPR recommendations translate into concrete action by the RGC in order to lessen the violence, discrimination and human rights abuses the LGBTIQ community suffers on a daily basis.

In 2020, on Intersex Awareness Day, CCHR renamed its ‘Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression (“SOGIE”) Project’ to be inclusive of intersex people. The new project title, ‘Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression, and Sex Characteristics (“SOGIESC”) Project’, provides improved visibility for intersex people in Cambodia and represents CCHR’s commitment to ensuring people with diverse and atypical sex characteristics are acknowledged and protected.

Conclusion

The human rights situation continued to deteriorate in 2020, particularly regarding fundamental freedoms. Subsequently, 2020 saw widespread self-censorship across society as a culture of fear continued to permeate Cambodia and spaces for exercising fundamental freedoms continued to be severely curtailed. Land rights and workers’ rights abuses continued to be prevalent across Cambodia, and the year did not see significant action to bring about justice for 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, and releasing those arbitrarily detained for legitimately exercising their fundamental freedoms, as well as ensuring all existing and new laws are compatible with international human rights standards.