The European Union’s ambassador to Cambodia yesterday urged the government to heed the advice of the U.N.’s visiting human rights envoy, who has come under increasing rebuke from officials for his unflattering reports.
Addressing a crowd of about 3,000, mostly garment factory workers, at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park to mark International Human Rights Day, E.U. Ambassador Jean-Francois Cautain spoke up for the work of the U.N.’s local human rights office and of the U.N.’s human rights envoy to the country, Surya Subedi.
“We believe the work of this office has contributed tremendously to the promotion and protection of human rights,” Mr. Cautain said of the U.N.’s human rights office in Cambodia.
“Similarly, the work of the U.N. special rapporteur, professor Subedi, who is here…in Cambodia, provides a unique opportunity for the government of Cambodia to receive expert recommendations for improving human rights,” he continued.
Government officials have recently stepped up their public criticism of Mr. Subedi, who arrived here on Sunday for his eighth fact-finding mission since taking up the unpaid post in 2009.
At least two officials, including the head of the government’s Human Rights Committee, Om Yentieng, have accused the U.N. envoy of effectively working for the political opposition. In October, Mr. Hun Sen referred to the envoy’s last report on the government’s highly controversial economic land concessions as “flimsy.”
The E.U. is currently reviewing Mr. Subedi’s report on land evictions in order to decide whether or not to launch its own investigation into possible human rights violations committed by Cambodia vis-a-vis free trade rules with Europe.
Also present at yesterday’s demonstration was the U.S. Embassy’s charge d’affaires, Jeff Daigle, who reminded the crowd of U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Cambodia last month, during which he pressed Mr. Hun Sen on the country’s deteriorating human rights record.
“Protecting human rights is essential to strong rule of law, civilian security, economic development and, ultimately, lasting peace,” Mr. Daigle said.
“This was a key message of President Obama during his visit to Cambodia last month, when he urged progress on these issues and stressed that the promise of Cambodia’s great people would only be realized when human rights are fully respected and all voices are heard,” Mr. Daigle added.
The U.S. president urged Mr. Hun Sen to create an independent election committee, let opposition parties work freely and release all political prisoners—including imprisoned radio station owner Mam Sonando.
Rights groups claim that the government has been regressing on its human rights record in recent years, increasingly using the police and courts to clamp down on dissenters and peaceful protesters.
In February, Bavet City governor Chhouk Bundith shot into a crowd of demonstrating garment workers, hitting three women, one through the lung. Though charged and implicated by eyewitnesses, the courts have made no attempt to arrest Mr. Bundith and could still drop the case.
Nuth Sokhorn, one of the women shot, allegedly by Mr. Bundith, reminded the crowds gathered at Freedom Park of the case.
“We are three women who were shot by Chhouk Bundith, who is still free. Please find justice for us,” she said, before breaking down in tears.
Thun Saray, president of local rights group Adhoc, said several government officials had been invited to the event, including Phnom Penh governor Kep Chuktema and Mr. Yentieng, but were told they would all be busy.
Police presence around the park was light. But just a few blocks away near the corner of Monivong and Russian boulevards, about 100 riot police officers blocked about as many anti-eviction activists from staging their own march to Mr. Hun Sen’s Peace Palace to deliver a petition requesting his help in their land disputes.
As the police confronted protesters, one police officer was seen knocking a female protester to the ground then kicking her in the abdomen. Once the protesters decided to disperse at about 10:30 a.m., police officers detained Nhep Ly, a community empowerment officer for the Housing Rights Task Force, for taking photographs.
Mr. Ly was taken to Srah Chak commune police headquarters in Daun Penh district but released soon after.
“The police accused me of taking pictures of the protest without asking permission in advance from authorities, but I told them that I just took pictures of the general activity like the other photographers,” he said after being released from custody.
Commune police chief Kan Vannak declined to comment on the violence and detention of Mr. Ly.
(Reporting by Aun Pheap, Khoun Narim, Phok Dorn and Zsombor Peter)
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