Civil society leaders on Friday condemned a statement made by Cambodia’s representative to the U.N. earlier this past week that characterized the country’s democratic space as “broad and deep.”
Ney Samol, Cambodia’s permanent representative to the U.N. in Geneva, made the remarks on Tuesday, the day after the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, noted a “drastic and deplorable narrowing” of Cambodia’s democratic space in his opening address to the 32nd session of the Human Rights Council.
More than 20 opposition figures and government critics have been jailed over the past year, and local U.N. official Sally Soen was charged in absentia in a bribery case widely believed to be politically motivated.
In his own address to the Human Rights Council on Tuesday, Mr. Samol, who also serves as Cambodia’s ambassador to Switzerland, claimed that the government “unequivocally adheres to rules of law, human rights and democracy,” according to a transcription of his remarks.
For proof, the ambassador pointed to the “4,637 NGOs in Cambodia freely conducting their activities with no constraints” and four general elections “conducted by our self [sic] with acceptable results to all parties concern [sic].”
“This reflects how broad and deep democratic space is,” Mr. Samol said. If anything, he said, it is certain NGOs that “exploit human rights agenda for political purposes.”
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the ambassador’s defense was nonsense.
“The Ambassador’s claim that there are no restrictions on civil society is a lie proven by uttering just one word: LANGO, the infamous law on NGOs that blatantly violates the right to freedom of association,” he said in an email on Friday. “Civil society is only ‘deep’ in non-controversial areas where the government doesn’t object to their operations.”
Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, agreed.
“It is obvious to all who observe the situation in Cambodia that the political space is drastically shrinking,” she said in an email.
“The number of NGOs operating in a country is not proof of a free and vibrant civil society. In past years the Cambodian government has made clear its intent to silence civil society, with crackdowns against peaceful protesters and arrests of human rights defenders becoming a worrying norm.”
Kem Ley, leader of the Khmer for Khmer political advocacy group, said the government had “learned a lot from the communist style” and that officials like Mr. Samol were motivated by concerns about job security, rather than a belief in good-faith diplomacy.
“They find the benefit, but what about the people’s benefit?” he said.
However, when asked on Friday about Mr. Samol’s remarks at the U.N., Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan took the ambassador’s remarks a step further.
“Local NGOs get their money from abroad, [so] they seem to be foreign agents,” he said on Friday. “We understand who [is] behind them,” he added without elaborating.
Mr. Siphan also suggested that the U.N. used its regular human rights reports as a fundraising tool.
“We understand that that human rights report is a commodity that they trade for profit,” he said, citing U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s recent reversal of a decision to place Saudi Arabia and several of its allies on a human rights blacklist.
The U.N. “needs money…. They got [Saudi Arabia] off of the blacklist for money,” he said.
“If [ U.N. officials] are troublemakers, we don’t need it.”