Human rights advocates claimed Tuesday that Cambodians continue to suffer from abuses, while government rights officials said conditions have improved.
On the eve of today’s international Human Rights Day, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s rights adviser, Om Yentieng, said respect for human rights “has improved a lot” over the past year.
“But we aren’t yet satisfied with this achievement, and we will try further to reform some laws and judicial systems,” said the president of the government-run Cambodian Human Rights Committee.
Om Yentieng’s optimistic note comes just weeks after the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights criticized the government for failing to uphold the constitutional rights of free assembly and speech.
Om Yentieng said the government now forbids people from staging demonstrations because the highly charged political climate could incite violence.
“The government doesn’t allow people to commit something that will cause danger,” he said. “Even the fathers in a family don’t allow their children to do something arbitrary.”
He accused NGOs of partiality, saying that they considered only civil society when criticizing the government, which he says has made great strides to uphold rights.
But Kek Galabru, president of the rights NGO Licadho, said a steady stream of complaints filed with the organization testify to ongoing violations.
“Human rights abuses still continue. They’re never relieved,” she said, pointing to a proliferation of political killings and violence, land grabs, rapes, human trafficking and corruption.
“The immunity still continues, and authorities never bring the perpetrators to be punished,” Galabru said.
She insisted that the human rights climate could not improve until the judicial system is independent and an anti-corruption law is passed and enforced.
Kem Sokha, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the human rights sector has improved, compared with the CPP-led communist regime of the 1980s.
He said the government’s interpretation of, and respect for, human rights does not jibe with the Constitution.
“The government should form its human rights unit and let independent people [form theirs], because although government officials have abused human rights, the government’s human rights unit will say there is no rights abuse,” he said.
A Licadho report released Tuesday, “The Situation of Human Rights Defenders in Cambodia,” warns that politicized or pro-government rights groups create a dangerous facade of state advocacy, while sometimes complicating or suppressing the work of independent NGOs.
“While not usually a direct threat to human rights [workers]…they allow the Cambodian government to appear to have an active human rights program and working relationship with the international rights community, where in reality setting the agenda themselves and at times, ignoring, marginalizing and obstructing the activities of legitimate human rights organizations,” the report states.
The report also noted verbal intimidation from high government officials as one of the most striking blows against rights workers’ safety.
Licadho alleges that Prime Minister Hun Sen in December 2000 accused human rights NGOs of hiding “terrorists” and used threatening language to make them stop.
“We will handcuff you without the acknowledgment that you are a rights worker [and] if you get involved, you will be arrested,” Licadho quotes Hun Sen as saying.
This government-condoned intimidation encourages threats to human rights workers, the report states.
Kem Sokha urged the government to offer proof to back its claims of improved respect for human rights.
“The government shouldn’t just claim that they are trying [to improve]. They should show how much they have done and what they haven’t done,” he said. (Additional reporting by Kate Woodsome)