Non-Government Groups Take Stock of Country’s Rights Record

The government’s abuse of land rights and indigenous minorities were among the top concerns raised Tuesday by non-governmental groups at a workshop in Phnom Penh on Cambodia’s progress toward achieving a long list of U.N. human rights recommendations.

As part of the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review process for all member states, Cambodia accepted all 91 recommendations the U.N. made in 2009. Covering everything from children to land, the recommendations hue toward the very vague. They urge the government to “tackle the roots” of gender inequality, for example, and “ensure” that trade unions get to operate freely.

Cambodia is due to submit its first report on its progress toward achieving those recommendations in October, before appearing before the council in Geneva in early 2014.

Non-governmental groups, from formal NGOs to communities of ethnic minorities, have until late June to put together their own report for the U.N. on the government’s progress and met Tuesday to get the process started. It is also their chance to suggest new recommendations.

For its part, Cambodia’s Human Rights Committee, charged with leading the government through the U.N. review process, claims it has achieved all but 10 of the 91 recommendations and was in the process of addressing the rest.

Ven Samin, an ethnic Suoy from Kompong Speu province, wanted the recommendations to call for more protection of minorities.

“I want them to take account our problems,” said Ms. Samin, who accused the nationwide land-titling project being led by Prime Minister Hun Sen of pressuring her community into giving up much of its ancestral lands.

Kha Sros, an ethnic Kuoy from Stung Treng province, accused the government of largely ignoring the interests of minorities.

“When it comes to development, they [authorities] don’t let the indigenous give their ideas,” she said. “They look down on us. They think we are indigenous and illiterate.”

Neil Weinstein, a consultant to the East West Management Institute, cast some doubt on the government’s rosy progress report. “Many of the concerns raised in 2009 still exist today,” he said at the workshop.

“For example, if you look at the recommendations, they talk about ensuring the freedom of expression and freedom of the press, particularly for human rights defenders and journalists. It talks about establishing a dialogue between the government and civil society to address land grabbing and evictions. And it talks about working to ensure an impartial judiciary.”

Rights groups say the government remains far from success on these.

Nou Sthapatia, a member of the government’s Human Rights Committee who attended the workshop, welcomed feedback from non-government groups.

“Sometimes the government cannot see the other points, I can accept that, so civil society has to raise that,” he said. “If you report [to us], we take that into consideration.”

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