Prime Minister Hun Sen Tuesday accused forestry watchdog Global Witness of fabricating evidence of police abuse to embarrass the government and said he was pushing to have the group dumped from its role as the government’s independent forestry monitor.
“This is an exaggeration and Cambodia cannot accept it. So Cambodia will use their right by accepting a forest crime monitor, but not Global Witness,” Hun Sen said in remarks broadcast on Apsara radio.
Minister of Agriculture Chan Sarun has already sent a letter to the World Bank, which is overseeing a $15 million logging reform program, demanding Global Witness’ removal, Hun Sen said.
“We have rights because we are a sovereign government, not subject to someone else,” the premier said.
This marks the second time Hun Sen has tried to oust Global Witness—the government’s official forestry monitor.
In early 2001 he accused the group of leading a politically charged campaign against the government after Global Witness released a critical forestry report to the media before government officials had a chance to review it.
Only after an apology from the group did the government agree to retain Global Witness as its forestry watchdog.
The group found itself in trouble again when on Dec 5 Global Witness officials taped an altercation between police and a group of rural villagers who came to Phnom Penh to ask Forestry Department officials for a workshop on logging plans.
Global Witness, along with some human rights officials, say the government called in riot police, who set upon the villagers with clubs and electric batons. The government has accused Global Witness of using the villagers “as their tools” to push their own agenda.
Human rights groups—including Peter Leuprecht, the UN’s chief human rights monitor for Cambodia—have called for an investigation into the alleged brutality.
On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch joined the chorus of rage lining up against the government, issuing a statement saying the violence and the sudden backlash against Global Witness and human rights groups were proof that the government is “not committed to the protection of the environment and basic human rights to freedom of association and assembly.”
Although the government has denied using force against the villagers, Human Rights Watch Tuesday renewed the claim that the government had doctored Global Witness’s videotape when it broadcast the incident on television.
A day earlier, a letter from US senators Patrick Leahy and Mitch McConnell called on the World Bank to end its logging reform program with the government, citing the harassment of activists and what they saw as unending corruption.
For international aid groups and activists, the real concern now is not that the government is attacking Global Witness to distract from the Dec 5 incident, but that it is attacking Global Witness to distract from what one human rights activist called “an attempt to smash a grassroots environmental movement.”
The Human Rights Watch release alleges several incidents involving threats by government officials against provincial activists in Kratie, Kompong Thom, Stung Treng and Mondolkiri provinces.
“It appears that the government wants to put an end to grassroots movements of villagers who are informed and concerned about national forestry policies and the ongoing illegal logging in their communities,” Human Rights Watch Asian Director Mike Jendrzejczyk was quoted as saying in the release.
The latest blowup over logging could put additional pressure on the World Bank, which human rights groups have blasted for sitting idly by while cronies of top government officials—or those government officials themselves—strip the land bare.
The World Bank attached a $15 million logging reform program to continued policing by independent monitors and a series of reform deadlines.
But even before the Dec 5 incident, Global Witness had accused the World Bank of engaging in “fantasy” by insisting on reforming logging, not stopping it.
On Monday night, a regional World Bank official insisted the Bank “supports the work of the forest crimes monitor.”
“The Bank holds Global Witness in high regard and is concerned about the ability of the monitor to do its work without fear of reproach,” the official said in an e-mail.
Officials at Global Witness could not be reached for comment Tuesday.