Visiting U.N. human rights envoy Surya Subedi on Tuesday accused the CPP government of a “lack of sincere will” in listening to the Cambodian people and said the ruling party bore most of the responsibility in ending the political deadlock, but also urged the opposition CNRP to end its nearly yearlong boycott of parliament.
Mr. Subedi, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, ended his 11th mission to the country with a press conference during which he both raised alarm at the recent spate of union arrests and rebuked the government’s secrecy in the drafting of pending laws that threaten to curb free speech and association.
The rapporteur called for the release of the government’s reports into fatal shootings by state security forces on protests by striking garment workers in January and warned of more violence and unrest if the CPP continued to resist change.
Much of the recent unrest has been fueled by the deadlock after the July 28 national election, which the CPP officially won, but which the CNRP accuses it of stealing. Months of fraught political talks on electoral reform and a power-sharing deal have yet to convince the opposition party to take its seats at the National Assembly.
Speaking with reporters, Mr. Subedi said the onus to break the stalemate lay mostly with the CPP.
“By virtue of the fact that it is the ruling party, the CPP and the government itself have the greater responsibility to demonstrate maximum flexibility, leadership and seriousness and embrace the demand for reform to ensure a smooth functioning of democracy,” he said.
But in his talks with the leaders of the opposition, Mr. Subedi said, he also urged them to be “reasonable and realistic” and stressed “the need and benefits of their joining the National Assembly for the greater good of the country.”
The envoy said he was glad both parties had agreed that the National Election Committee should be enshrined in the Constitution and have an independent budget.
But he pressed for other election reforms, too, including a restructured election committee, a fix to the heavily flawed voter registration process, and a fair and open system for settling election disputes.
Mr. Subedi said he was “alarmed by the upsurge of judicial intimidation of union activists” in recent months, including several arrests, and called the $25,000 bail levied against Ath Thorn, the head of the country’s largest independent union, “unprecedented.”
He welcomed the release late last month of 25 unionists, garment workers and bystanders arrested during a series of protests that turned violent in November and January, and criticized the courts for convicting them.
The convictions, he said, “were unsubstantiated by credible evidence following trials which, according to many independent observers, did not meet international fair trial standards and, in many cases, were entered against individuals who did nothing more than exercise their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and assembly.”
At least seven people were shot dead by police or military police during garment industry protests between September and January. A teenager last seen bleeding profusely from a chest wound at a January 3 protest is still missing.
Mr. Subedi urged the government to release the findings of its investigations into the events and to detail its efforts to find the teenager.
The Interior Ministry denies any knowledge of a missing person from that protest.
Regarding a draft Trade Union Law, which the International Labor Organization said last month was worse than previous versions and fell short of Cambodia’s international convention obligation, Mr. Subedi said that Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng assured him the law would be brought into full compliance.
But Mr. Subedi again rebuked the government for not consulting with those who would be affected by other pending laws, including a secretive cybercrime law. And he said long-awaited laws on judicial reform, passed just last month, still left the executive branch with “undue influence” over the courts and “fall short of…international standards.”
Mr. Subedi lamented the ongoing ban on demonstrations at Phnom Penh’s ironically named Freedom Park and said barricades police have set up around it left the impression the government wanted “to put democracy in a cage.”
He said the government’s modest progress on reforms belied a “lack of sincere will to recognize the message expressed so loudly and clearly by the people.”
“The art of governing is the art of managing change,” Mr. Subedi said. “Those who resist change find that one day change has been forced upon them by developments beyond their control.
“If real reforms are not effected soon, the country runs the risk of a return to violence. I sense a deep-rooted frustration amongst the population, especially the youth, rural poor and disenfranchised and dispossessed people, about the lack of progress.”
Mr. Subedi, a law professor in the U.K., said he would use his findings from this visit for his next report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in September.
His past reports have highlighted fundamental and deep-rooted flaws with the country’s courts, legislature and private land concessions blamed for tens of thousands of forced evictions across the country.