Cambodia has “a long way to go” in protecting human rights and ensuring the National Assembly effectively monitors the executive branch, UN rights envoy Surya Subedi says in his most recent report.
The report, finalized earlier this month and based on his observations during visits to Cambodia in February and June, contains some of his strongest criticism to date.
Focused on the effectiveness of Parliament, the report was published by the UN General Assembly in advance of its submission to the UN Human Rights Council, said Zoe Latumbo, communications officer for the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights.
According to the report, the National Assembly falls short in a number of core functions, specifically the ability for members to transcend party lines and effectively perform their functions.
“After the ruling Cambodian People’s Party won more than two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly in the last general election, the role and work of the National Assembly as a proper debating chamber seems to be declining,” Mr Subedi wrote.
“Overall, the members of the National Assembly in Cambodia have not effectively used their powers of oversight to act as a check on the executive branch and hold the executive accountable for its actions.”
The report discusses a “narrowing” of political space here, with opposition and minority parties being viewed as “an enemy of the State rather than as political partners with differing views.”
Using opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s 12-year jail sentence in absentia, as an example, Mr Subedi reported that in any “properly functioning democracy, such political matters would be debated by Parliament…rather than the subject of a criminal case before the courts.”
Mr Subedi also said he was concerned by the increasing criminalization of legitimate speech and expression.
“There has been a disproportionate use of defamation and disinformation provisions…by the government against journalists, human rights defenders and political leaders,” he said in the report.
“The government should not criminalize or impose criminal penalties for activities in defense of human rights and for participating in unregistered entities,” he said.
Mr Subedi concluded from previous fact-finding missions that the judiciary here was weak, a finding he reiterated in the most recent report. He also found that “alarming patterns of violence” in land disputes were on the rise, and a lack of transparency in economic land concessions was accompanied by a convergence of state and business interests.
Government response to Mr Subedi’s findings was tepid.
“The government is trying hard to improve human rights, and the government has made great improvements,” said Mak Sambath, deputy chairman of the government’s Human Rights Committee, adding that he found Mr Subedi’s report repetitive.
“No matter what the government does, they are never satisfied,” Mr Sambath said. “This is not acceptable in our country. Though you have the right to expression, the right is in accordance with the law.”
The government is always working to increase transparency in the land sector, said Beng Hong Socheat Khemro, Ministry of Land Management spokesman.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen has always said this is a problem,” Mr Socheat Khemro said. “He has advised the government and the ministry to review all land concessions that could harm or upset people.”
Ministry of Justice Secretary of State Prom Sidhra shrugged off the report’s comments on judicial weakness.
“Our judges and prosecutors are well educated and experienced, but if the international community wants to help us with training, they are welcome,” he said.
SRP lawmaker Yim Sovann said Cambodia needed the international community to help steer the country’s democracy “back on track.”
“The ruling party has control of everything from national institutions to grassroots politics,” Mr Sovann said. “As in the case of the World Bank, the government will respond to international pressure.”
Mr Subedi will present his findings at the UN Human Rights Council’s 18th session in September. The government is expected to deliver official comments on the report at that time.