Breaking its silence on the government’s controversial amendments to Cambodia’s Law on Political Parties, the U.N.’s human rights office this week said the changes breached several of the country’s obligations under international law—maybe even its own Constitution—and recommended a thorough overhaul.
“Several articles of the present law conflict with international standards on the rights to freedom of association and expression that are binding upon Cambodia,” the U.N. says in a human rights analysis of the amendments released on Wednesday.
And because the country’s Constitution guarantees the protection of basic human rights, “the contradictions of international law contained in the [party] law would thus also seem to contradict the Cambodian Constitution,” it says.
The office recommends “a thorough, substantive and consultative revision of the law to address the issues raised…and thus prevent the contradictions” with the Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Cambodia has signed on to.
The ruling CPP rammed the changes through the National Assembly and Senate with lightning speed last month, making no attempt to consult with other parties—let alone the public—and catching most foreign embassies off guard. The U.N. itself says the speed with which the changes moved from concept to law made it impossible to finish a thorough review of the amendments before they came into force.
Some rights groups suspect the CPP moved as fast as it did deliberately to avoid a public debate.
The party law now gives the Interior Ministry the power to indefinitely suspend whole parties for violating a vague list of offenses, and the Supreme Court the right to dissolve them outright.
In its analysis, the U.N. concedes that rights need limits, but says those limits must be proportional to the risks those rights pose and applied as narrowly as possible. It says the sweeping language added to the party law makes it hard to know where the limits are.
“People cannot be expected to comply with a law that they do not understand,” the U.N. says. “A number of vague terms contained in the law, such as ‘national unity,’ ‘security of the state’ and ‘serious mistakes’ would require clarification to comply with international human rights law.”
The U.N. also says the law gives the Interior Ministry “de facto” power to dissolve parties without the courts by putting no limits on how long it can suspend them for, “contrary to international standards that require regulatory bodies that are independent of the executive branch to ensure a level political playing field.”
And allowing senior government, military and judicial officials with powers to interpret and apply the law double up as political party leaders, it adds, “gives ample reason to doubt the impartiality and fairness of their rulings on such matters, particularly when no safeguards against potential conflicts of interest are laid out.”
A dozen local NGOs calling themselves the Electoral Reform Alliance were among the first to come out against the amendments in the middle of last month before they were passed.
Chak Sopheap, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), one of those NGOs, said on Wednesday that she welcomed the U.N.’s analysis, which echoed the concerns they raised more than a month ago.
“The analysis pinpoints the vague and over-broad language contained in the law…which [leaves] far too much space for the government to misapply its provisions against political rivals,” she said. “This is the latest string [in] the government’s bow, engineered to assist in its campaign of repression of critical and independent voices.”
“Statements by senior officials before and during the legislative process indicate that this law is intended for deeply undemocratic purposes, which fly in the face of constitutional norms and international human rights law,” she added.
Though the government denies any bias, Prime Minister Hun Sen has previously said that he was aiming the amendments at the opposition CNRP, his only viable rival in upcoming local and national elections.
Since they’ve taken effect, the CPP and Interior Ministry have wasted no time leveling new allegations against the CNRP that could get the party suspended or dissolved under the new rules.
Spokesmen for the Council of Ministers and the Justice Ministry could not be reached for comment on the U.N.’s analysis.
The CPP has said that the executive and courts need their new powers to protect Cambodia from parties that would see it torn apart. But the ruling party has otherwise made no effort to justify the specific changes, even boasting of its power to pass any laws it wants to with its parliamentary majority.
“The important thing is we can do it,” CPP spokesman Chheang Vun told reporters last month when asked about the controversy around the new amendments.
Ms. Sopheap of the CCHR conceded to seeing little hope of getting the newly amended law changed again anytime soon, but said the thorough vetting the U.N. has done “will provide a tool for the Cambodian people, civil society and the international community to more clearly articulate their opposition to this deeply undemocratic development.”
“While the government has repeatedly claimed that it will not be swayed by pressure when it comes to respect for human rights, we must hope that they will take seriously these concerns outlined by an internationally recognised and respected body.”
The government has repeatedly accused the U.N. human rights office of meddling in Cambodia’s internal affairs and recently held up renewal of the agency’s mandate to stay here for months in order to win what it says are better terms.