The U.S. State Department released its 39th annual human rights report on Friday, reviewing abuses against the citizens of 199 countries and painting a forensic picture of the shortcomings of the Cambodian government’s efforts to protect the rights of its population.
Under the heading “Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life,” the report on Cambodia focused on the January 2014 clash in which security forces shot and killed four protesters and injured 35 more on Veng Sreng Boulevard during raucous—and sometimes violent— demonstrations by garment factory workers.
The report also drew attention to the disappearance of 17-year-old Khem Sophat, who went missing after allegedly being shot by security forces during the clashes on Veng Sreng.
“[The government] has not responded to letters of inquiry sent from the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances and the local UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights,” the report said.
The three leading human rights problems on a long list of infringements in the report were “the arbitrary suspension of the right to assemble in the capital, a politicized and ineffective judiciary, and constraints on freedom of press.”
Offering some positive news, the report acknowledged that the government prosecuted some officials who committed abuses, yet said impunity for corruption continues to reign.
And while the government may acknowledge some failings—such as the harsh treatment of drug addicts detained at centers against their will—“there was little follow-through on such statements.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said that the U.S.’ report was not a factual account, but an interpretation of the situation in Cambodia in 2014 that takes no account of efforts to improve the situation since then.
“It is not fair to Cambodians, this report. It is pointing the finger and looking down at us when in fact, down here we are improving and certainly are doing better than our neighbors,” he said.
Addressing the three main problems cited in the report, he jokingly asked the reporter whether he felt the media was constrained. On freedom of assembly, he said people were free to gather where they wanted but, like in other countries, they had to respect the rule of law and get permission.
Efforts to reform the justice system were also underway, he said, pointing to the removal in February of Phnom Penh Municipal Court director Ang Mealaktei amid allegations of corruption in the court.
“We have improved since last year, we are doing better than our neighbors and we know we need more improvements,” he said. “But we are on the right track, so [the U.S.] can repeat again and again about last year if they want.”
Indeed, the U.S.’ finger was pointed less vigorously at Cambodia this year than some of its regional neighbors, with Burma, Thailand and Vietnam all criticized at length in the report for a long list of rights abuses and impingements on civil liberties.
Thailand’s military coup last May brought severe curbs on freedom for its citizens, while Burma’s ongoing ethnic violence and discriminatory politics were highlighted. Vietnam was criticized for restricting NGO registrations, including human rights groups.
Recent high-profile news events on the U.S.’ home soil raised some of the same issues as those leveled against other countries in its report. A blog posted on the State Department’s website to coincide with the report defended the U.S. against anticipated charge of hypocrisy.
“With the human rights reports, we make it clear that this is the standard toward which we as an international community must strive,” the State Department said, adding that the U.S. “does not speak from a position of arrogance or self-righteousness.”
The mea culpa by the U.S. was unlikely to appease China, which alongside Cuba and Iran received the sternest criticism. On Friday, China released its annual counterpunch to the U.S. report titled “The Human Rights Record of the United States in 2014.”
This year’s report from China stressed that the U.S. showed little intent “to improve its own terrible human rights record,” according to state news agency Xinhua.