The New York-based Human Rights Watch called on the government yesterday to end police violence against sex workers by investigating reports of abuses.
“The main reason why the abuses continue to happen by police and by other government officials is because of the culture of impunity,” Human Rights Watch’s acting Asia Director Elaine Pearson said at a new conference in Phnom Penh to launch a 76-page report on the alleged violations.
“No one is ever brought to justice,” Ms Pearson said.
Human Rights Watch urged the government to investigate claims of abuse ranging from arbitrary detention to beatings to rape and theft.
The group also called for the shuttering of the government-run centers where the sex workers were allegedly mistreated and for the suspension of provisions in a 2008 law on prostitution and human trafficking that it says facilitated abuse.
Ms Pearson said a “soliciting” provision in the law is used “as a pretext to harass sex workers,” while a “procurement” provision “is very broad and could be used to criminalize a whole range of activities that should be allowed…such as HIV outreach to sex workers.”
The Secretariat of the National Commission on Human Trafficking Suppression has asked the National Police to investigate the report’s findings, said the secretariat’s Chairwoman Chou Bun Eng, who is also a secretary of state with the Ministry of Interior.
“I just only want to say that we ask the government, do not hesitate to investigate this case,” Ms Bun Eng said. “We will see the results later.”
Asked about Human Rights Watch’s call for suspension of provisions in the 2008 law, Ms Bun Eng said that laws enacted to protect human rights.
“If someone uses this law to violate the rights of this person, we cannot accept them to do so,” she said.
In its report, Human Rights Watch said Cambodia’s 2008 law led to more intense targeting of sex workers by authorities.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said at the press conference that the US government bears some responsibility for this situation because of Washington’s support for the law, which also focuses on human trafficking.
“By ignoring a long record of corruption and human rights abuses by the Cambodian police and pushing for criminalization of sex work in Cambodia, the US government is partly responsible for the legal and policy environment that is reflected in this report,” Mr Robertson said.
Asked to respond to the criticism, US Embassy spokesman John Johnson said in an e-mail that Cambodia “has made great strides in combating trafficking within the country’s borders, but there is still work that needs to be done. The US remains committed to helping Cambodia implement the articles on anti-trafficking in the future.” (Additional reporting by Van Roeun)