United Nations human rights experts today called on the Government of Cambodia to stop a clampdown on civil society, human rights defenders, parliamentarians and UN personnel, and instead protect civil society and respect fundamental freedoms in the country.
“The escalation of criminal charges, questioning, court proceedings and public statements against them must cease,” the experts said in a joint statement. “We urge the Cambodian authorities to ensure a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders and civil society, which play a critical role in holding the Government to account and bringing benefits of human rights to the whole of Cambodian society.”
The experts are Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression; Maina Kiai, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; and Rhona Smith, Special Rapporteur on Cambodia.
Their appeal comes as the courts investigate an alleged extra-marital affair of an opposition parliamentarian, as well as the related allegations of bribery brought against staff members of a prominent human rights organization known as ADHOC. An anti-terrorism department inexplicably initiated these charges, and then anti-corruption unit further pursued the case after ADHOC had provided legal and material support.
“We are also troubled by the actions taken by Cambodian authorities to deter and disperse peaceful demonstrations and arrest individuals protesting what they see as Government’s mounting persecution of civil society and unjustified restrictions of fundamental freedoms in the country,” they stressed.
Accusatory statements by senior Government officials towards the participants of the so-called ‘Black Monday’ campaign and labelling peaceful protesters as ‘rebel groups’ are highly regrettable, the experts noted, stressing that such actions are clearly inconsistent with Cambodia’s obligation under international human rights law to respect the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
Members of ADHOC have been accused of bribery for providing legal and financial support to a young woman at the centre of the extra-marital affair scandal. The authorities claim that the non-governmental organization (NGO) ‘bribed’ her to deny the affair.
ADHOC members maintain that the support was part of their regular human rights work and given at the individual’s request for sustenance and transport to government offices for questioning. The staff members face five to ten years in prison, if convicted.
“The investigators’ relentless quest for a confession by the young woman, their subsequent outright reliance on it to initiate the other ‘bribery’ cases against defenders, as well as public statements by senior State officials portraying the accused as guilty, generally suggest that this entire episode is nothing more than a politically-motivated persecution of civil society. It also raises serious questions about woefully flawed due process,” the experts said.
Independent experts or special rapporteurs are appointed by the Geneva-based Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.