Restore Free Assembly, UN Rights Council Says

Cambodia’s human rights record was assessed Tuesday by the U.N. Human Rights Council’s 47 member states in Geneva, many of which cited concerns about the recent violent suppression of protests by the government, and a judiciary beholden to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling CPP.

The U.N. hearing focused on a set of 91 recommendations put to Cambodia by the Human Rights Council in 2009. This list outlined ways in which Cambodia could improve its human rights record and pointed in particular to improvements needed in areas such as judicial reform, land rights and ratifications of international treaties.

Mak Sambath, deputy chairman of the government’s Human Rights Committee, who led a delegation of officials to the Geneva hearing, told the council that Cambodia had made improvements since 2009. He said the government continues to focus on granting land titles, and will introduce three new laws to strengthen the judiciary within the first half of this year.

The U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights, Surya Subedi, has an open invitation from the government to come and assess the situation firsthand, Mr. Sambath added.

After his presentation, member states were given the floor to comment on Cambodia’s rights record.

Diplomats from Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, the Czech Republic, the U.K., the U.S. and Germany were among those who questioned Cambodia on its January 4 decision to ban gatherings in Phnom Penh after unleashing lethal force on protesters outside a garment factory on January 3, which resulted in five dead and more than 40 wounded.

Spain said it was “concerned about recent deaths” as a result of minimum-wage strikes, while Switzerland criticized Cambodia for what it characterized as a “patchy implementation of the recommendations” made by the council in 2009.

Switzerland also called for the government to “put a stop to…arbitrary arrests and attacks” on citizens by government security forces and said the situation in Cambodia with regard to freedom of expression had deteriorated.

The ambassador from the U.K. said the recent use of live ammunition against unarmed protesters “cannot be justified” and called for a credible inquiry into such actions, as well as the release of 23 union representatives and garment workers imprisoned after protests were brutally suppressed on January 2 and 3.

“A recent ban on assembly has no basis in Cambodian law,” the U.K. ambassador told the delegation.

The U.S. also expressed “deep concerns” about the ban on demonstrations in Phnom Penh and told the Cambodian delegation that it should be lifted, with citizens afforded the freedom to gather “without fear of retribution.”

Ministry of Interior Secretary of State Pol Lim, who attended the hearing, responded to states’ concerns about the recent ban on gatherings, insisting that the action—and violent responses from security forces—were necessary measures intended to maintain stability.

“I would like to reaffirm that for this information to be solid, first, in relation to the right to assembly, as mentioned in the law on peaceful demonstrations in Cambodia, it stipulates for protection and permission—everything I mentioned in the law,” he said.

“In any situation, the cause of chaotic situations or violence, resulting from any demonstrations, is to make sure that security for individuals and the private sector and individuals without any discrimination or cause any damages to public property or private,” he continued.

A number of countries also expressed concern that more needs to be done to give Cambodians faith in the independence of the judicial system—long considered to operate under the thumb of Mr. Hun Sen’s CPP government.

Not every country had criticism for the state of Cambodian human rights, however. Vietnam congratulated Cambodia on the holding of national elections in July, which remain at the center of the current political impasse between the CPP and opposition CNRP.

“We congratulate Cambodia on the recent fair election,” the Vietnamese ambassador said.

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