Advancing Human Rights in Cambodia

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This is my third trip to Cambodia during my tenure with the State Department. I have come to meet with government officials as well as leaders of Cambodia’s vibrant civil society, representatives of the political opposition, and representatives of the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Cambodia has made great strides since the dark days of the Khmer Rouge, a time when mass atrocities were the order of the day. In each of my visits I have been impressed and greatly encouraged by the strength and resilience of the Cambodian people. Their resolve, courage and determination will help build a brighter future ahead.

As Cambodia continues to integrate into the region and the international community, the world is watching for signs of progress, especially on human rights and democracy. This is a point that President Obama and former Secretary of State Clinton made when they visited Cambodia three months ago. Parliamentary elections in July will test the government’s stated commitment to promoting multiparty democracy. A number of Cambodian organizations and political parties have offered recommendations for a more open process to govern those elections. We urge the government to give serious consideration to these proposals. The government needs to take concrete steps to ensure a level playing field so that all political participants — representing a wide range of views — are able to compete fairly in the July elections, including Sam Rainsy. The credibility of these elections will be judged by whether the political opposition is allowed to participate fully and fairly.

During my visit I have also urged Cambodia’s leaders to allow for a vigorous, peaceful, and public debate about a wide range of issues, and without threat of retribution. This discussion and debate should take place through radio, television, and the Internet – particularly in the months leading up to the July election. We are greatly concerned by the continued imprisonment of Mam Sonando, a leading media figure who has called for political reform. We urge his release. It is a sign of a healthy democracy that even those who most disagree with those in power can make their voices, including their criticisms, heard without fear of being silenced.

Representatives of civil society offer another key voice in this public discourse. These organizations advocate for the protection of human rights, support for democracy, and promotion of economic opportunity and development. I am deeply concerned by the harassment some activists have faced recently, including some who were summoned for questioning in separate incidents –investigators for ADHOC and the president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions. This undue pressure against these organizations is inconsistent with Cambodia’s international human rights obligations and commitments. Civil society members should be allowed and encouraged to carry out their research, organizing, and advocacy work freely, without burdensome legal restrictions or harassment.

While in this country I also have focused on land rights issues. Land disputes need to be addressed in a manner that is transparent, fair, and just. We welcome the suspension of issuances of new economic land concessions. Now, in order to lay the foundation for a land tenure system governed by rule of law that supports broad based prosperity, land policy needs to be made more transparent. We are also concerned about reports that a number of land rights activists are imprisoned. The government should initiate an honest public debate that explores appropriate policy responses to land tenure issues, and addresses the need for a more efficient, transparent, and equitable way of dealing with disputes.

I also had discussions about the need for an impartial judiciary and the lack of due process. Over the past year I have been troubled by reports of perfunctory trials and questionable judicial practices. This most often comes to light in high-profile cases, such as in the case of Sok Sam Oeun and Bom Samnang, the two defendants charged with the muder of labor activist Chea Vichea. But it is the right of every defendant to a fair trial, and I ask that the government do better.

We are also concerned about the use of excessive and unnecessary force by security and prison officials. This issue has become particularly troublesome with respect to land rights disputes, but we are also concerned about physical abuse of detainees and prisoners. This practice is on the decline, but must cease altogether, and immediately. We urge the government to hold police and security officials accountable for their actions and to break the cycle of impunity.

Cambodia’s future will also be in part defined by the nature of economic growth. Inclusive growth that benefits broad segments of society can only happen if economic opportunities expand, the standard of living improves, and more people – especially women –are able to participate in the formal economy. Adoption of the draft Trade Union Law would empower workers, including in the informal sector, to organize, and enjoy greater social protections.

Today Cambodia faces a range of human rights challenges. As a partner, we seek to work together with Cambodians to advance regional stability, prosperity, and the aspirations of the Cambodian people.

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