New Year, Same Issues

Nick Jones (February 5th, 2015)

Last month, Surya Subedi ended his six-year mandate as the United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia. During his final news conference, he stressed that Prime Minister Hun Sen must make a more concerted effort to make government institutions—such as the judicial courts—more independent. “Many of the state institutions responsible for upholding people’s rights are unfortunately still lacking accountability and transparency needed to command the trust and confidence of the people”. However, he has seen progress in regard to the growing public demand for their rights. “People have woken up… and they are ready to fight for their rights…so far, the courts of Cambodia have not delivered justice in the way demanded by all Cambodians” (Reuters, Jan 23rd).

Human Rights Watch (HRW), recently released its annual World Report. They found that “2014 was one of Cambodia’s worst years in recent history in terms of human rights violations, citing ‘killings by security forces, arrests of activists and opposition politicians, summary trials and crackdowns on peaceful protest’” (Phnom Penh Post, Jan 30th).

In November of last year, 19 land rights activists were controversially arrested and sentenced to prison by a court the following day. These activists (including residents of the Boeung Kak, Thmor Kol, and Toul Kork communities; monks; and CNRP members) recently had their appeal denied by a court whose proceedings were notable for their lack of due process.

Skip forward to this year, on February 4th, the Phnom Penh Post reported that the authorities in Battambang town have notified 600 families living in Prek Preah Sdech commune that they need to relocate to make way for the construction of a large public garden. The villagers’ have been told that they live there illegally and are expect to leave as soon as possible. Some families have lived there for over 20 years and have very little hope of receiving adequate compensation to relocate.

On the same day, “more than 100 families in Rattanakkiri’s O’Chum district are demanding a solution after a Chinese company allegedly bulldozed their land and [about 300] nearby family graves to create a rubber plantation” (Phnom Penh Post, Feb 4th). The clearing began on Sunday, February 1st, and only stopped when villagers protested in front of the vehicles. A representative of the company stated that they had already received permission from the government to clear the land. He even made the extraordinary claim that “[the villagers] want to grab the state [land] and control it privately”.

Despite clear warnings from the UN envoy for Cambodia and unflattering reports from internationally recognized organizations, the government remains indifferent to the basic human rights of the people it is supposed to protect. In Cambodia, ‘strong government’ is not synonymous with ‘good governance’. Expect a similarly scathing evaluation in next year’s report from Human Rights Watch.