While the government agreed at the end of last year to let the U.N.’s human rights office continue operating in the country for two more years, the debate over the body’s role in Cambodia is far from finished, as illustrated by the past few days.
Cambodia’s ambassador to the U.N. released a stern statement in response to comments about the country made last week by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the U.N.’s high commissioner for human rights, who expressed his concern over “a host of charges and threats against members of opposition parties and people exercising freedom of expression.”
In his response, Ney Sam Ol said, “Cambodia remains committed to guaranteeing the individual rights, and freedom of expression,” but was not prepared to allow people to say whatever they please.
“[F]reedom of expression is not absolute and it shall be executed with responsibilities under the jurisdiction of the scope of law and regulation in force. Thus, one should not hide behind human rights shade to stir instability for one’s own ill agenda,” he said.
Among what rights group Licadho says are at least 27 political prisoners in the country—all jailed since May 2015—are more than a dozen opposition activists and five current or former officials for rights group Adhoc. Political analyst Kem Ley was shot dead last year in what many believe was a political assassination, while fellow commentator Kim Sok was jailed last month on the back of a defamation complaint from Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Mr. Sam Ol both defended controversial new amendments to the Law on Political Parties, which many fear will be used to suspend or dissolve the opposition CNRP ahead of commune elections in June and the national election next year, and offered a threat to those who fell afoul of the law.
“Unlawful and anarchic acts, racial incitement and hate speech should not be justified no matter whoever committed,” he said, in a thinly veiled reference to the CNRP, which has faced broad criticism for often resorting to popular anti-Vietnamese rhetoric.
“In a nutshell,” Mr. Sam Ol added, “my delegation has an impression that human rights issues often become a tool for vilifying the Government reputation, particularly when the periodic elections are going to take place.”
In his address to the U.N. Human Rights Council on Wednesday in Geneva, Mr. Al Hussein said human rights issues were particularly important to highlight because elections were approaching.
“I stress that credible elections must be grounded in guarantees that courts will be independent and impartial, and that the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association will be protected,” he said, concluding his remarks on Cambodia.
Wan-Hea Lee, the country representative of the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said in an email on Sunday that there were well-defined rules and processes to guide governments on matters of freedom of expression.
“Restrictions are possible, but they cannot be unlimited or arbitrary,” she said. “When discontent is expressed, OHCHR consistently advocates governments to address the root cause of the discontent rather than its expression, and to pursue initiatives through public consultation.”
Ms. Lee said the office was prepared to engage in discussions on relevant topics, including what constituted “anarchy,” which is often used by the government to describe situations or speech it finds undesirable.
“The best way for a country to ensure it maintains a good reputation in human rights is to respect them,” she said. “OHCHR is always ready to assist, including by explaining the standards and the permissible restrictions and encouraging compliance with them.”
The office was currently working on a project to fight against all forms of discrimination, she added. “In this regard, we call on everyone who speaks about another racial or ethnic group to take care not to promote personal hatred against them.”
Duch Piseth, advocacy director for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the courts’ behavior made criticism about them inevitable, as they handled political cases with an efficiency never seen in complaints filed by normal citizens against well-connected officials or businesspeople.
He said the burden fell on the government to prove the U.N. and other critics wrong.
“If the government wants to show credibility, they can handle the situation without putting those critical of the government in jail or facing a security risk,” he said.