With government officials, NGOs and international organizations meeting this week to prepare for Cambodia’s review by the UN Human Rights Council later this year, a top government official said the country’s rights record has greatly improved—a stance human rights groups and the political opposition were quick to reject.
Last month, human rights organizations in Cambodia submitted reports to the UN Rights Council’s universal periodic review working group detailing alleged rights violations such as the persecution of human-rights activists, limitations on the freedom of expression and an increase in land-grabbing and forced evictions.
But on Monday, the first day of a three-day workshop in Phnom Penh to help the government prepare for the review, Senior Minister Om Yentieng, president of the government’s Cambodian Human Rights Committee, said the country had made progress in protecting human rights and denied recent reports suggesting the contrary.
“I think we cannot say the human rights in our country is number one in the world, but we are not last…. We are very proud because many sectors have improved,” Mr Yentieng said in an interview after the workshop.
As examples of this progress, Mr Yentieng cited universal suffrage, which was established in 1955, and the right to “eat rice.”
He said that those who criticize the government over forced evictions rarely look at the whole picture, and that the government pays little attention to such reports.
“We just do our job. It is their right to report, but that it is a bigger problem is not true as they say. I think the reports did not [consider] enough and are not fair,” he said.
The government needs to prepare carefully for the review, Mr Yentieng said, but added the process is better when compared with previous UN reviews because it focuses only on human rights, and the government will be able to present clear statistics demonstrating that the situation has improved.
Reached by telephone Monday, Dan Nicholson, coordinator for the Asia and Pacific program at the Center on Housing Rights and Evictions, said that even though he was encouraged to see the government and civil society work together during the workshop, his organization had submitted to the UN Rights Council a report pointing out shortcomings such as violations of the right to adequate housing and the failure to implement legislative protections regarding land issues that already exist.
COHRE estimates that about 150,000 Cambodians live under the threat of eviction and that the scale of land-grabbing and forced evictions has increased in recent years.
“In relation to housing rights and evictions, the situation in Cambodia has not improved,” Mr Nicholson said.
Local rights group Licadho submitted a report to the council on April 10 highlighting the scale of persecution of human rights defenders, union leaders and political activists. The organization recorded at least 120 cases of threats between 2005 and 2007, ranging from verbal intimidation to murder, said Licadho President Kek Pung, formerly Kek Galabru.
“We monitor persecution of human rights defenders, prisons and torture happening in police custody. I don’t think that what we have been working for has improved.” Mrs Pung said. “We have no transparency and people are arrested without warrants,” she added.
The UN review is important because the government will have to answer to the international community, she said.
“[The review] will be official and it will be taped, so they cannot have time to think about their response. In Cambodia they can choose not to respond but not in Geneva…and they cannot hide their violations. They will be held responsible,” she said.
Although politically motivated violence and killings have declined, the government has successfully scared people and the media into self-censorship, SRP President Sam Rainsy said Monday.
“Many are traumatized and scared to talk. Their rights have been curtailed so nobody—factory workers, victims of land-grabbing, Khmer Krom people—can [voice] their opinion or demonstrate,” Mr Rainsy said.
Through false defamation lawsuits and other “punishments,” the government has created a situation where media outlets self-censor for fear of government retribution and land-grabbing continues to be a serious threat, he added.
Cambodia has been scheduled for review on Dec 1, during the Sixth session of the Universal Periodic Review.