HUMAN RIGHTS IN CAMBODIA

HUMAN RIGHTS IN CAMBODIA

Human rights violations in Cambodia include arbitrary arrest, bribes given to judges and policemen, human trafficking, and extrajudicial killings. The government wants to pass a law that would limit demonstrations to 200 people and require permission from authorities to stage them.

According to Human Rights Watch: “Violence against human rights and other activists in Cambodia increased in the run-up to national elections in July 2013. Prime Minister Hun Sen has kept himself in office more than 27 years through force and intimidation, making him one of the world’s leaders longest in power. Violence involving state security forces occurred amidst increasing land grabs by powerful business and security interests, often through official corruption in unbridled foreign investment. Labor unrest grew as workers’ rights were suppressed. The opposition party leader remains exiled in France rather than face prison in Cambodia on politically motivated charges. Cambodian judicial officers continue to implement Hun Sen’s pronouncements by refusing to investigate additional Khmer Rouge suspects for the Khmer Rouge special tribunal. [Source: Human Rights Watch]

In December 2007, Cambodia’s United Nations ambassador complained that the U.N.’s human rights envoy to Cambodia, Yash Ghai, displayed “unacceptable arrogance” and insulted Cambodia during a visit to the country and asked whether a U.N. human rights envoy was “still necessary” as the 1991 Paris peace agreement stipulates. In March 2010, Cambodia threatened to expel a U.N. official, Douglas Broderick, on the grounds of “flagrant and unacceptable interference in the internal affairs of Cambodia” after he urged more public debate on corruption issues.

LICADHO (Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights) is a homegrown Cambodian human rights group that has been involved in drawing attention to and protesting a number of human rights and environmental issues.

See Police and Justice System, See Censorship and Freedom of the Press, See Media

Human Rights Watch Cambodia Report 2013

According to Human Rights Watch Cambodia Report 2013: The human rights situation in Cambodia deteriorated markedly in 2012 with a surge in violent incidents, as the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) prepared for national elections scheduled for July 28, 2013. On June 1, Prime Minister Hun Sen reached his 10,000th day (more than 27 years) in office, making him one of the 10 longest-serving leaders in the world. The prime minister, now 60, has said he wants to remain in office until he is 90. [Source: Human Rights Watch]

Violence involving state security forces occurred amidst increasing land-taking by powerful business and security interests, and growing labor unrest due to dissatisfaction with an economic policy that relies heavily on state authorities’ often-corrupt promotion of unbridled foreign investment, especially via granting economic and other land concessions, which continued despite the government’s May 2012 announcement of a moratorium.

Opposition party leader Sam Rainsy remained in exile in France rather than face prison sentences totaling 12 years as a result of politically motivated and manifestly unfair trials. At least 35 other political and social activists and residents involved in defending human rights, opposing land grabs, and demanding better working conditions were killed, wounded, arbitrarily arrested, threatened with arrest, or kept in exile by CPP-led security forces and the CPP-controlled judiciary.

Human Rights Watch on the Khmer Rouge Tribunal

Cambodian judicial officers working at the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) continued to implement Hun Sen’s pronouncements by refusing to investigate additional Khmer Rouge suspects, including CPP-linked perpetrators from Pol Pot’s 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge regime. At the same time, as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Cambodia’s government played a leading role in stymying efforts by regional civil society organizations to adopt a credible and effective human rights mechanism.

CPP political interference effected via government-appointed judges, prosecutors, and other personnel at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (ECCC) precipitated the resignation—with effect from May 4—of Laurent Kasper-Ansermet, an investigating judge nominated by the United Nations secretary-general. Kasper-Ansermet claimed that government interference and lack of cooperation made it impossible for him to do his job. His court submissions detailed how that interference had blocked his efforts to investigate five suspects whom Prime Minister Hun Sen had not approved.

The CPP’s longstanding strategy of attempting to control the court via delaying tactics and passive non-cooperation contributed to reducing the prosecution of Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, and Khieu Samphan—three Hun Sen-authorized indictees among former Khmer Rouge leaders—to a “mini-trial” in which only a few of the crime against humanity counts against them would be adjudicated. It appeared unlikely that they would ever go on trial for the additional charges of genocide and war crimes laid against them in December 2009, even though the tribunal is the most expensive international or hybrid criminal tribunal ever, calculated in terms of cost per accused put on trial.

Attacks, Harassment, and Prosecutions against Activists and Protesters in Cambodia in 2012

According to Human Rights Watch Cambodia Report 2013: On February 20, three young women factory workers were wounded by gunfire during a large peaceful protest demanding increased wages and allowances for foreign enterprise employees in Bavet municipality of Svay Rieng province, eastern Cambodia. While evidence suggests that the CPP mayor, Chhouk Bandit, intentionally fired directly into the crowd, a provincial court only placed him under investigation for unintentional injury without holding him for trial. [Source: Human Rights Watch]

On April 26, noted environmental activist Chhut Wutthy was shot dead after military police and company security guards stopped him from documenting illegal logging activities in Koh Kong province, southwestern Cambodia. Although the exact circumstances of his death remain unclear, government and judicial investigations into his killing appeared designed to shield those most responsible and further conceal their unlawful economic activities. The killing had a chilling effect on efforts by others to uncover similar activities.

On May 16, security force gunfire killed Heng Chantha, a 14-year-old girl, during a government military operation against villagers in Kratie province, eastern Cambodia, who were protesting the allegedly illegal seizure of their land by a foreign concessionaire. Instead of launching a criminal investigation into police conduct, Hun Sen accused protesters of organizing a “secessionist movement” and then ordered the arrest of its leaders.

The government also used the incident to falsely accuse Mom Sonando—the 71-year-old owner of Cambodia’s main independent radio station and an outspoken critic of the government—of being the ringleader of the supposed secession. Sonando was arrested on July 12 and later sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment during a trial in which no credible evidence against him was presented.

The government also targeted for prosecution leading investigators of ADHOC, a major Cambodian human rights organization, apparently to punish them for their human rights activities. A court in Phnom Penh, the capital, ordered Chan Sovet to appear on August 24 inconnection with the land protests in Kratie noted above to answer allegations that he provided a small amount of humanitarian assistance to a community organizer who fled the government operation suppressing the protests, saying the aid constituted intentional assistance to aknown perpetrator of a felony. A local court in Ratanakiri province, northeastern Cambodia, summoned Pen Bonnar on October 1 in connection with land disputes there.

On May 24, prominent Buddhist monk Luon Sovath, who had on many occasions expressed sympathy and support for victims of land-grabbing, was briefly detained while en route to observe the trial of 13 women activists (the “Boeng Kak 13”) opposing evictions in Phnom Penh. On February 14, he had been secretly indicted on frivolous grounds for “incitement to commit a felony,” leaving him vulnerable to arrest at any time. Sovath was named winner of the prestigious Martin Ennals human rights prize in October.

Also on May 24, the court sentenced the 13 women, including a 72-year-old, to two-and-a-half years in prison for involvement in a campaign protesting evictions and demanding proper resettlement for people displaced by a development project owned by a Hun Sen crony and a Chinese investor in Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak area. Under domestic and international pressure, an appeal court released the 13 on June 27, but upheld their convictions. In August and September, a provincial court repeatedly summoned Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions who is widely seen as the country’s most determined labor leader, to answer allegations that he had incited a supposedly illegal garment worker strike in a factory near Phnom Penh, also putting him at risk of imprisonment.

In early September, two more leaders of protests against urban evictions, Yorm Bopha and Tim Sakmony, were arrested after apparently politically motivated allegations lodged with the Phnom Penh court. They were held pending trial and faced prison sentences if convicted.

Impunity for Human Rights Violators

According to Human Rights Watch Cambodia Report 2013: Hun Sen’s protection of perpetrators of Khmer Rouge crimes and failure in 2012 to credibly investigate killings involving security forces bookended a consistent pattern of impunity for human rights abuses committed during his prolonged rule. These include torture and forced labor in the 1980s, political killings when the UN attempted to midwife a democratic transition in the early 1990s, and a string of extrajudicial executions, assassinations, and attempted assassinations in the years between then and 2011.[Source: Human Rights Watch]

These crimes have targeted journalists, opposition party organizers, labor leaders, activists, and intellectuals—with the dead numbering in the hundreds. The crimes, and impunity for them, have characterized Hun Sen’s rise and hold on power, and the surge of human rights violations in 2012 confirmed that he considers their perpetration as fundamental to his rule and to preventing popular and democratic challenges.

International Pressure and Cambodia Human Rights

According to Human Rights Watch Cambodia Report 2013: The United States, China, and Vietnam provided security assistance to Cambodia in the form of training, equipment, or both. Although US law required that beneficiaries of its training be vetted to ensure none were human rights violators, the vetting process remained deeply flawed. There were no human rights safeguards in Chinese and Vietnamese security aid. [Source: Human Rights Watch]

Japan continued to be a major provider of economic assistance without effective conditions. Large-scale state and private Chinese, Vietnamese, and South Korean aid and investment lacked any mechanisms for community participation in decisions related to land or the local environment. Conversely, the World Bank continued to withhold funding for new projects pending a satisfactory government resettlement solution for evictees from the Boeng Kak development project in Phnom Penh, while the Asian Development Bank agreed to review its performance in addressing deteriorations in living conditions suffered by people affected by a bank-financed railway project.

The US made a number of public and private demarches to the government on specific human rights concerns, including the Boeng Kak 13. However, a September donor conference in Phnom Penh was almost silent on the deteriorating human rights situation. The government reacted with invective to reports by the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia that recommended reforming electoral and land concession systems.

Cambodia Center for Human Rights

The Cambodia Center for Human Rights (CCHR) is a leading non-aligned, independent, non-governmental organization that works to promote and protect democracy and respect for human rights – primarily civil and political rights - in Cambodia. We empower civil society to claim its rights and drive change; and through detailed research and analysis we develop innovative policy, and advocate for its implementation. [Source: Cambodia Center for Human Rights cchrcambodia.org

Human rights activist Kem Sokha launched and registered CCHR in November 2002. In December 2005 he was arrested and detained with others activists accused of criminal defamation for comments written by an unknown individual on banners displayed at Human Rights Day celebrations. The activists were released following international pressure and a campaign for freedom of expression led by CCHR’s then Advocacy Director, Ou Virak. In early 2007 Kem Sokha left CCHR to pursue a career in politics. Ou Virak replaced him as CCHR President and in the same year won the Reebok Human Rights Award for his work promoting freedom of expression. Ou Virak continues to lead CCHR today.

Since our foundation the CCHR’s emphasis has been on empowering communities and was the first NGO to facilitate ‘public forums’ throughout Cambodia. These public forums are broadcast on Voice of Democracy, a radio program established by CCHR in 2003, and 6 other independent radio bandwidths in Cambodia. In June 2007 the Cambodian Center for Independent Media was founded to operate Voice of Democracy as an independent radio station. Public forums are also now filmed and posted on Youtube. In recent years, CCHR has expanded initiating the Business and Human Rights Project, the Human Rights Defenders Project, the Human Rights Network Project, the Human Rights Portal Project, the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Project and the Trail Monitoring Project

Forced Detentions in Cambodia

Reporting from Phnom Penh, Brendan Brady and Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Wholesale detention of drug users, homeless people, sex workers and beggars in holding centers out of public view is common, with street sweeps occurring especially before holidays and visits by foreign dignitaries. "This practice takes its roots from [Cambodian] history," said Mathieu Pellerin, a consultant with Licadho, a Cambodian human rights group that has campaigned against forced detentions. "It's very deep in their DNA. To this day, the government denies that it's unlawful detention." [Source: Brendan Brady and Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, August 10, 2010 <>]

“In mid-2008, Pellerin got word of a wholesale roundup of "undesirables." He went with a team to a government detention center, where he found the director drunk. A member of his team lured the official aside as others went inside and photographed the dire conditions being endured by entire families, the mentally disabled, epilepsy patients without medicine and pregnant women who were hauled off the street by police and government workers, most without their family's knowledge. <>

“When Pellerin and his team presented their evidence to the government, he said, officials denied wrongdoing and said the disclosures were politically motivated. Human Rights Watch said it has also received reports of police and Social Affairs Ministry officials making money by leasing out detainees as laborers or selling their "donated" blood. <>

Cambodia's Nasty Drug Rehab System

According to Human Rights Watch Cambodia Report 2013: In December 2011, revisions to Cambodia's drug law enabled drug users to be detained for compulsory "treatment" for up to two years. Despite a March 2012 call by 12 UN agencies to close drug detention centers, various government agencies—including security forces—continued to operate 10 centers across the country. Former detainees reported that they had been held without due process, subjected to exhausting military exercises, and ill-treated and even tortured by staff. [Source: Human Rights Watch]

Reporting from Phnom Penh, Brendan Brady and Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “He meanders through a city park with friends, sniffing glue out of a plastic bag. Many nights he passes out on the sidewalk nearby. It's a bleak routine, but this 17-year-old prefers it to his stints at Choam Chao, one of the Cambodian government's controversial drug rehabilitation centers, where he was twice detained. "At night, when they got drunk, sometimes they'd beat me," he said, referring to older detainees deputized by the guards to enforce discipline. His tormentors were rewarded, he said, with occasional trips out of the center's compound, when they could buy their liquor. "When I stopped doing the [enforced physical] exercises, they'd kick me in the stomach," said the teenager, who, along with other former detainees, requested anonymity because he feared official retribution. [Source: Brendan Brady and Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, August 10, 2010]

Although his account could not be independently verified, it is consistent with what human rights groups and other detainees say is a widespread pattern of unlawful detention in Cambodia that masquerades as rehabilitation. Those unfortunate enough to be unwillingly caught inside this harsh system are often subject to physical and emotional abuse and deprivation. The teenager said he started using drugs at age 8, soon after his father died. He lived for a few years with his mother, who scraped by scavenging garbage, then struck out on his own, earning money watching parked cars for tips.

His first "rehabilitation" detention, at age 11, lasted six months after he was picked up in a police sweep of his neighborhood. That was followed, at age 13, by 21/2 years of incarceration, during which guards and their stooges attacked him with braided electrical wire and belt buckles. He said he was never officially charged with any crime or allowed to see a lawyer. The teen, who said he has lost touch with his mother, said the only pretense of therapy while in detention was an occasional medical checkup, by officials from a visiting charity, and three hours of daily military drills designed to "sweat out" the drugs. New arrivals suffering severe withdrawal symptoms were lashed down to their beds at night, he added.

"Human rights abuses are intrinsic to how these centers operate," said Joe Amon, a New York-based director of Human Rights Watch, which has released a report on the issue. "Arduous physical exercise and military drills appeared to be happening everywhere, as were beatings and whippings by center staff or detainees … for disciplinary purposes." The watchdog group characterized this approach to supposed rehabilitation as "sadistic," adding that wholesale detention of drug users, homeless people, sex workers and beggars in holding centers out of public view is common, with street sweeps occurring especially before holidays and visits by foreign dignitaries. "This practice takes its roots from [Cambodian] history," said Mathieu Pellerin, a consultant with Licadho, a Cambodian human rights group that has campaigned against forced detentions. "It's very deep in their DNA. To this day, the government denies that it's unlawful detention."

The so-called rehabilitation system's real aims appear to be social control, profit and retribution for perceived moral failure, watchdog groups said. More than 2,000 people were detained in 11 Cambodian facilities nationwide in 2008, the vast majority involuntarily. For drug users put through the state rehabilitation system, the relapse rate was nearly 100 percent, according to one World Health Organization report. Pellerin blames the Cambodian government for the alleged abuses, but he also points a finger at United Nations agencies and countries that donate aid but don't use their money or leverage to force change. "Donors seem unwilling to draw conclusions that should be drawn after two decades," he said. "Maybe they don't want to admit their own failure."

Cambodian authorities have denied the charges of abuse. At an anti-narcotics conference in March, Prime Minister Hun Sen acknowledged that the centers were not "medically appropriate," but he accused human rights groups of "blindly attack[ing] without seeing the government's charity." Drug users should appreciate the food, shelter and training they receive, Cambodian officials say. Although some facilities may be substandard, they add, that only reflects the limited resources of a nation still recovering from decades of war.

Some former detainees in Cambodia note glimmers of humanity in the system. The 17-year-old glue sniffer was instructed in traditional drums and hair cutting. And a recently released 15-year-old said his term was "easy" and included English lessons, although he was forcibly detained without charges and saw others beaten.

The basic problem, say critics and detainees, is that Cambodia's system focuses more on punishment than rehabilitation. "Those places will harden you," said a 22-year-old former detainee, sipping moonshine in a vacant lot where he was preparing to spend the night. Rights groups and former detainees say it's rife with unlawful detention and physical abuse that masquerades as rehabilitation. The government denies the charges.

Human Trafficking and Cambodia

According to the U.S. government: “While the Cambodian Government overall has made progress in responding to trafficking issues, the past year has witnessed a decline in efforts to combat trafficking in persons, specifically in regard to prosecution of trafficking related crimes. Cambodia is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children trafficked for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor. Women and girls are trafficked to Thailand and Malaysia for exploitative labor as domestic workers and forced prostitution. Some Cambodian men migrate willingly to Thailand and Malaysia for work and are subsequently subjected to conditions of forced labor in the fishing, construction, and agricultural industries. [Source: Embassy of the United States, Phnom Penh, Press Releases, June 17, 2009]

Cambodian men and women repatriated from Malaysia report experiencing conditions of forced labor after migrating there for work with the assistance of Cambodian labor recruitment companies. Cambodian children are trafficked to Thailand and Vietnam to beg, sell candy or flowers, or shine shoes. Parents sometimes sell their children into involuntary servitude to serve as beggars, into brothels for commercial sexual exploitation, or into domestic servitude. Within Cambodia, children are trafficked for forced begging, waste scavenging, salt production, brick making, and quarrying.

The Government of Cambodia does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. Despite these overall efforts, the government did not show evidence of progress in convicting and punishing human trafficking offenders including complicit public officials, or in protecting trafficking victims; therefore, Cambodia is placed on Tier 2 Watch List. To improve its Tier ranking, Cambodia should work to significantly improve the number of prosecutions, convictions, and punishments of trafficking offenders; and substantially improve efforts to prosecute, convict, and criminally punish public officials complicit in trafficking.

See Sex, Prostitution

Cambodia Tackles Human Trafficking

Marielle Sander-Lindstrom wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Cambodia is regularly referred to as the human-trafficking hub of Southeast Asia, but it's hard to know by which measure. Anywhere from thousands to hundreds of thousands of men, women and children are trafficked there annually. Without reliable data on these crimes, it's hard to combat this clandestine trade or to prioritize needs and services for its victims. Which is why it's heartening to see Phnom Penh take action. In June 2008, the government launched its first-ever national effort to collect standardized data on human trafficking. Headed by the National Task Force, a collaborative effort between 14 government ministries and agencies and more than 200 nongovernmental organizations, the goal is to establish common definitions and data collection methodology. [Source: Marielle Sander-Lindstrom, Wall Street Journal, June 12, 2008. Ms. Sander-Lindstrom heads the Asia Foundation's Counter-Trafficking in Persons Program in Cambodia =]

“This isn't as easy as it might sound. For example, does cross-border trafficking refer to national borders or movement across provinces? Should the recorded age of the victim be based on his or her age when first trafficked, or the age when the person was rescued? If a woman agrees to be sold by her parents into the sex industry, is she trafficked? These questions matter. Policy makers can't construct effective laws without knowing the nature of the crimes committed. Law enforcement can't combat trafficking effectively without good data. NGOs can't provide the correct services to victims of trafficking without data on gender, age, education level, forms of exploitation and the location of rescue. =

“Once definitions are established, the National Task Force can start collecting and analyzing data to ensure that policies and programs respond to real needs. This is already starting to happen. The National Task Force, together with the Ministry of Social Affairs and its partners, have agreed to collect 15 key data sets to determine the profile of the victim, forms of assistance and reintegration services provided. This data will help the Cambodian government and countertrafficking actors monitor and measure the impact of antitrafficking efforts. =

“This collaborative effort is the latest indication that Cambodia is getting serious about combating trafficking. Earlier this year, parliament passed the Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Commercial Sexual Exploitation. This law is a watershed because it criminalizes a wide range of trafficking offenses, from sex slavery to bonded labor. Phnom Pehn has also started to crack down harder on offenders, in an effort to protect Cambodian nationals from exploitation. =

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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