The visiting UN human rights envoy said yesterday that the space for free speech in Cambodia was continuing to shrink and that the government was moving too slowly in implementing democratic reforms.
Speaking with reporters on the last of a 10-day visit, Surya Subedi also added his voice to a growing chorus of critics who say a new law being drafted to regulate the country’s thousands of NGOs was unnecessary.
“There are a number of laws which already govern the operation of NGOs,” said Mr Subedi, a professor of international law. “So strictly speaking as a lawyer, a new law is not required.”
The remarks mirrored comments by US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Baer, who also said Tuesday that the law did not appear to be necessary.
Critics fear that the NGO law’s registration and reporting requirements will overwhelm smaller groups with few technical resources and so stifle grassroots activism. The government said it would adopt most of their recommended changes, but has yet to release a revised draft.
Necessary or not, Mr Subedi said it was the government’s prerogative to pursue such a law. If it does, he said, “I hope the Ministry of Interior will engage in wider consultation to bring it in line with international norms and practices.”
But Mr Subedi said the room for critics to speak out was still shrinking.
“I am concerned about the narrowing of space for people to express their views peacefully and without fear,” he said, repeating his call on the government to decriminalize defamation. A new penal code that took effect in December keeps defamation a criminal offense.
Mr Subedi praised the government for some progress, including the penal code’s passage and regulations for demonstrations and evictions.
These laws have come under fire for fear that they may stifle land rights and free speech. While acknowledging flaws in each, Mr Subedi said having the laws was better than having no such laws at all.
Cambodia’s bigger troubles lay with having the laws it has carried out in a correct manner. Mr Subedi cited the 2001 Land Law, which offers valuable protections to longtime residents without title to their land.
“It is a good piece of legislation,” he said. “The bigger problem is not having that law implemented properly.”
Human rights activists complain that the government consistently ignores the law. But, hopeful of assurances received from officials during his visit, Mr Subedi said, “A great deal of fleshing out, of spelling out is required, and that’s what the Ministry of Land Management is trying to do.”
But the UN envoy pressed the government to move faster.
“I would like to see the government speed up the process of reform and the process of democratization,” he said. “The process…hasn’t been as speedy as it should have been.”
Following in the footsteps of former envoys who have all had rocky relations with the government, Mr Subedi also said his ties with officials were still good but not what he would like them to be.
“Obviously, I would like to receive a greater level of cooperation, especially with regard to my recommendations on the judiciary,” he said.
After his last visit in June, he submitted a deeply critical report on the country’s court system to the UN Human Rights Council with recommended reforms to combat corruption and political interference.
Mr Subedi was reluctant to go into specific reforms. But Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, a legal aid NGO, said he had seen little progress in court reform.
“The government has a strategic plan for reform, but in fact I see very few” changes, he said.
Mr Sam Oeun praised the recent efforts of the newly established Anticorruption Unit. But as for the courts themselves, he said, “I don’t think it has improved.”
Prom Sidhra, a secretary of state at the Justice Ministry who has discussed judicial reform with Mr Subedi, could not be reached.