“Why in Cambodia does the government always kill the people?” the moto-taxi driver asked.
The 23-year-old, who calls himself “Danny,” participated in September’s opposition-led demonstrations against alleged election fraud. Since then, he has seen at least one friend disappear and he knows of others who are missing and feared dead.
Danny said he knows there are laws protecting human rights in Cambodia, but he does not believe they are enforced. “I think maybe the government does not care about the people living in Cambodia,” he said Monday.
Top government officials including Prime Minister Hun Sen and UN dignitaries are to meet today in ceremonies to mark the 50th anniversary of the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which lists the rights to vote according to conscience, trial before punishment and freedom from torture or political intimidation as basic to all.
Yet, on the eve of the anniversary, there remained a chasm of disagreement on how far Cambodia has come and how far it has to go in protecting its people from abuse.
Rights workers and experts say the country has made some progress in human rights since the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1991 and the adoption of the Constitution in 1993. But many say the country still has a “culture of impunity” for military and government abuses.
“Institutional support has been laid, but at the same time there are threats that basic freedoms will not be protected,” said a representative of the New York-based Human Rights Watch Asia.
Om Yentieng, chairman of the government Cambodian Commission on Human Rights, said Wednesday that the country has made vast improvements.
“Today, human rights in Cambodia are good,” Om Yentieng said. While he said there is still a need for reform, he said the government “really strongly [has] a will to protect human rights.”
Activists insist otherwise. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy in particular decries what he calls a subservient justice system and rails against a “mafia state” responsible for murdering and jailing dissidents.
“The anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights…is only a reminder that the Cambodian people are systematically denied their rights,” a statement from the Sam Rainsy Party said Wednesday.
The party has accused police of rounding up many of the 55 people listed by the UN center for human rights as missing since the demonstrations.
Yet, rights workers and experts interviewed this week said there have been some improvements in the rights situation since 1991.
One major change is more people are aware they have rights, at least in theory, the Human Rights Watch representative said.
Plus, institutional groundwork, such as a Constitution that guarantees rights for all, has been laid.
The creation of the Constitution and the government human rights committee “are very important steps,” said the Human Rights Watch representative. “Now it remains for the top level of government to uphold the principles enshrined in the Constitution,”
Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development, agreed it is a good sign the government and Hun Sen say they are emphasizing human rights.
“But we still have a long way to go,” she said.
Hun Sen is to deliver a human rights speech today in the aftermath of an election and post-election season that opposition politicians and rights workers have said was marred by intimidation, fraud and political killings. The London-based rights group Amnesty International believes there were as many as 20 politically related deaths connected to the protests.
The most recent test for the strength of human rights was the September anti-government protests, which were broken up by armed police after two weeks of tolerance. Two people died in clashes with authorities and counter-demonstrators, and dozens more have disappeared.
“The demonstrations showed the need to put human rights into practice. Practice and enforcement clashed” when police ended demonstrations, Chea Vannath said.
Om Yentieng said the government’s human rights commission plans to use education to further improve the situation.
“The first step is to explain to people that human rights are for all and that human rights are the role [responsibility] of all people, not only rights workers” he said.
And another task may be to show Cambodians such as Danny, the moto-taxi driver, that the government really does respect their rights.
Since the demonstrations, he has made a habit of staying in Phnom Penh city instead of going to his home on the outskirts of the capital. One reason, he said, is that he fears police retribution for his part in the demonstrations.