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Cambodian delegation shows disregard for UN review as crackdown on free expression continues

On 30 January 2014, ARTICLE 19 expressed alarm at the Cambodian government's failure to answer for human rights abuses before the international community. While in Geneva, the Cambodian government showed disregard for the United Nations (UN) system that monitors human rights, while it continued to oversee a violent crackdown on peaceful protests and the right to freedom of expression at home.

ARTICLE 19 is also concerned that Cambodia's neighbours have placed regional allegiance ahead of meaningful human rights protection. Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have praised the 'improvement' of human rights in Cambodia, rather than address serious shortcomings and advocate for the better protection of fundamental rights in the region.

"The Cambodian government made a mockery of the UN's human rights review process, sending a clear message that it could not care less about the international community, let alone its very own people," said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19. "The culture of impunity that has long defined power in Cambodia was showcased these last couple of days, with the Cambodian delegation comfortably sat before the UN in Geneva, while scenes of bloodshed, tears and abuse by the authorities against its own people were emerging from within the country."

A delegation from the country attended Cambodia's Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on Tuesday 28 January, the process by which the human rights record of all UN Member States is assessed on a rolling basis at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Just days before the review however, government forces reacted violently against a peaceful protest by garment workers in Phnom Penh demonstrating for higher wages. The Cambodian government has repeatedly used excessive force to suppress peaceful protests in the country in the past year, including surrounding last year's controversial election, the result of which is still be widely challenged.

While typically UN member states send their foreign secretary or senior-ranking ministers as a sign of respect for the global human rights mechanism, the Cambodian government sent the Vice Chair of the Cambodian National Human Rights Committee. ARTICLE 19 believes this to be a sign of disregard for the human rights review process.

ARTICLE 19 was in Geneva during the week of 27 January with Cambodian housing rights activist Ms. Tep Vanny to urge UN member states to call on Cambodia to respect free speech and other fundamental human rights. Ms. Vanny was arrested just three days before she was to fly out to Geneva, as she was handing over a petition to the United States Embassy in Cambodia, calling for the release of the 23 individuals that are still detained after being arrested during the 2 January garment workers' protest. Fortunately, she was released that same day and was able to fly to monitor the UPR.

"It was clear to me that the government of Cambodia does not care about the UPR process because they lied about the real situation in the country. I am disgusted with the way they spoke, avoiding all truth and responsibility. They accused my community, victims of forcible eviction, of fabricating our problems for personal gain. I was shocked to hear these accusations being made in front of the international community. The authorities have continually lied to us, arrested and beaten us, but the pain is now stronger in seeing them come before the entire international community with the same lies. In that moment, I wanted to stand up and shout out the truth, but instead I had to suffer quietly as I watched on," said Ms. Tep.

She continued to say, "After all telling so many lies, I saw the Cambodian representatives looking happy and pleased, but I felt such deep pain and sadness. After seeing those happy faces, I am very worried that when they return to Cambodia, that they'll treat us even worse than before. When I heard the other countries speak about our suffering, fear and needs, I felt encouraged. But that feeling was immediately killed as soon as I heard my own country speak."

Ahead of the UPR, ARTICLE 19, along with a coalition consisting of PEN International, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, and Ms. Tep, met with the United States, Swiss, Czech and Indonesian permanent missions; the first three of which made explicit recommendations to Cambodia to respect free speech and freedom of assembly. However, Indonesia, along with the other ASEAN member states that spoke during the UPR, were all silent on the Cambodian government's crackdown on free speech, and instead gave glowing reviews of its human rights efforts.

Just two hours before the start of Cambodia's UPR, the coalition held a well-attended side event at the UN, where oppositional party leader, Sam Rainsy of the Cambodian National Rescue Party, was also present. During the side event, ARTICLE 19 covered the situation of free speech in Cambodia since its last UPR review in 2009, noting a sharp turn from legal to violent threats in 2012 against human rights defenders, activists and journalists. The coalition also presented its recommendations on free speech, which was included in the shadow reported submitted to the UNHRC in 2013. During the side event, Ms. Tep spoke about her Boeung Kak lake community, which was forcibly evicted nearly seven years ago and is still suffering from human rights abuses by the authorities. Fellow housing rights activist, Yorm Bopha, who was arrested for 14 months on politically motivated charges, provided a video testimony that was also shown at the event.

The Cambodian government cannot do as it had done in the last UPR session, which was to accept nearly all the recommendations but largely fail to make those recommendations a reality.

As Ms. Tep aptly stated,"If I could have a word with the Cambodian delegation, I would tell them 'Stop lying! Start implementing!'"

Click here for the shadow report submitted to the UNHRC by the coalition.

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