U.N. human rights envoy Surya Subedi on Thursday condemned the State’s recent use of lethal force against protesters and called for an independent investigation into the incident earlier this month when military police shot dead five striking garment workers and wounded more than 40.
At a press conference at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Phnom Penh to wrap up his 10th mission to Cambodia, Mr. Subedi said he had initially welcomed large-scale demonstrations at the end of 2013 as “a sign of maturing democracy in Cambodia.”
However, he said, the government’s deadly response to garment strikes in Phnom Penh’s Pur Senchey district on January 3, during which five people were killed, marked “a worrying change from a tolerant to a repressive response of the government to public protests.”
“I am deeply concerned about the conduct of authorities in relation to the events of the first week of January,” Mr. Subedi said.
Mr. Subedi reiterated a call for an investigation into the shooting to ascertain “who issued and who carried out the order to shoot,” adding that those responsible must be brought to justice.
“I call on the government to establish the whereabouts of the individuals missing since these events,” Mr. Subedi said, adding that the 23 people detained following the protest should be released on bail.
The special rapporteur also condemned the shooting deaths of bystanders Mao Sok Chan and Eng Sokhom during two separate clashes between police and protesters late last year.
A ban on public protest introduced by the government since the events of January 3 should be lifted as such a measure can only be legally taken if a state of public emergency is proclaimed, Mr. Subedi said.
“I have not seen an official proclamation of a public emergency of such gravity that threatens the life of the nation. In the absence of a legal basis, the ban on demonstrations should be lifted,” he added.
Regarding garment worker demands for a higher minimum wage of $160, Mr. Subedi said talks between the government and the workers was necessary.
“The government of Cambodia must work to ensure that the national minimum wage is set at a level sufficient to provide all workers and their families with a decent standard of living,” he said.
This week’s visit was Mr. Subedi’s first since the national election in July was marred by allegations of widespread fraud. The questionable outcome of the election has since resulted in a political impasse with the opposition CNRP boycotting parliament and calling for a re-vote and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s resignation.
“I expressed my view in my various meetings that political reconciliation was the only way forward for the country and urged the government to exercise flexibility in working out a solution to end the impasse,” Mr. Subedi said, adding that he had told the opposition the same thing.
The opposition’s own failings did not escape criticism however.
“I am alarmed by the anti-Vietnamese language allegedly used in public by the opposition,” Mr. Subedi said, adding that in his meetings with the CNRP he had: “highlighted that tolerance and racial harmony were crucial for the future of democracy in the country.”
The envoy expressed optimism about his meetings with Prime Minister Hun Sen and 10 of the country’s most senior government officials on Wednesday, saying he believed the premier was “willing to seriously address the human rights issues in the country.”
Whether or not such a vow can be taken in any way seriously remains to be seen.
Asked if he had received any assurances that the government would refrain from using live ammunition against civilians in the future, Mr. Subedi said only that he hoped it would consider the necessity, legality and proportionality of such tactics before resorting to live fire.
In his concluding remarks, Mr. Subedi said he sensed an optimism and desire for change in the country.
“Cambodia stands at a crossroads,” he said. “Change is coming to Cambodia faster than many had anticipated.”