Decriminalize Free Speech, UN Envoy Says

In his first address to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, UN human rights envoy Surya Subedi called yesterday for Cambodia to end the practice of suing and jailing its critics, saying such limits on freedom of speech were “both disproportionate and unjustifiable.”

In his brief address, Mr Subedi, who was appointed human rights rapporteur on Cambodia in March and met with Prime Minister Hun Sen in June, for the first time al­lowed frank criticism to peer past the careful evenhandedness of his first dealings with the government.

The 47-member council is also due today to consider a resolution re­newing the mandate to allow the con­tinued existence of a special rapporteur on Cambodia. The resolution is expected to pass by acclamation.

Sun Suon, the Cambodian am­bassador to Geneva, told the council that he welcomed Mr Subedi’s re­port and that the government feels recent court verdicts penalizing government critics had been “delivered in compliance with the existing law in Cambodia.”

The envoy’s address was greeted favorably by developed nations on the council, which expressed “alarm” at Mr Subedi’s findings, and also by Asian countries, which largely avoided discussion of the problems he identified.

After the acrimony of the tenure of his predecessor Yash Ghai, who was ostracized by Mr Hun Sen and resigned last year, Mr Subedi told the council earlier this month that Cambodia’s respect for land rights was “deteriorating” but that he wished to begin “a new chapter of cooperation” with the Cambodian government.

In his remarks yesterday, he stated that Cambodian laws regulating speech go beyond what is permissible under international treaties.

“I am of the view that the spirit of the provisions guaranteeing freedom of speech in international human rights treaties is to treat any matters relating to restrictions on such freedom, including defamation issues, under civil law rather than criminal law,” Mr Subedi said, noting possible exceptions for matters of national security.

He noted that the National Ass­embly is now reviewing a new draft penal code, which he said was an opportunity to decriminalize defamation once and for all.

“I stand ready to assist the National Assembly in providing advice and guidance on ensuring the new penal code complies with international human rights standards,” he said.

Despite the “great strides” Cambodia has made, challenges remained, he said.

“The rule of law is weak in the country. The judiciary is not as independent as it should be. The courts are chronically underfunded,” he said. “I am also concerned that the issue of impunity remains a painful matter which has not been addressed as thoroughly as it should be.”

“The majority party in parliament should not be at liberty to undermine the basic rights of the minority and enact laws to curtail civil liberties,” he added.

Mr Suon said that it had replied to Mr Subedi to clarify “discrepancies” in his views.

“Cambodia has almost 600 newspapers, journals and magazines, 40 radio stations and seven television channels. Some of the media have been critical of the government on a daily basis,” he said.

“The government has frequently adhered to greater tolerance throughout the democratic process for the promotion of views and expression by individuals.”

“During the last year period, progress has been made in a number of areas, namely: the successful expansion of land demarcation and titling programs to resolve the land problem, the establishment of a ‘social concession policy’ to provide poor and landless people with access to plots of land,” said Mr Suon.

Speaking for the European Union, Swedish Ambassador Hans Dahlgren said Mr Subedi’s description of defamation and freedom of speech was “particularly alarming” for the freedom of lawyers, NGOs, journalists and politicians to work within the law.

Malaysian Ambassador Siti Hajjar Adnin expressed her country’s solidarity in the struggle to improve respect for human rights.

“As a fellow Asean member, Malaysia acknowledges the many and complex challenges Cambodia needs to address in its effort to achieve progress for freedom, dignity and development, including better enjoyment of human rights by her people,” she said.

“We would also like to encourage the Cambodian government to strengthen efforts for the development of the country and improvement in the life of her people.”


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