Government officials on Monday hit back at UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) criticisms expressed ahead of the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) scheduled for next month.
In preparation for the UPR on Cambodian human rights on January 30, UN human rights experts released a statement expressing concern over the harassment and intimidation of journalists, human rights defenders, trade unions, land and environment activists, civil society actors and members of the opposition in Cambodia.
The UNHRC statement said these people “continued to be prosecuted for their activities, in particular through the criminalisation of defamation and other vaguely formulated offences.”
They added that new laws had been passed which contained provisions that could potentially restrict freedom of expression, association and assembly, namely the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations (Lango), the Trade Union Law and the Telecommunications Law.
Ministry of Justice spokesperson Chin Malin countered that all the laws were made to ensure freedom for journalists, civil society and trade unions, and not restrict them.
He said a handful saw the laws as restricting freedom because they had previously exercised political agendas.
“Before we had these laws passed, they performed their activities so free that they exceeded the laws and affected the rights of others. Sometimes they exercised their freedom with a political agenda which affected public order."
“When we prepare these laws to ensure public order, they think this restricts their freedom because they used to do whatever they wanted [and] with a political agenda,” he said.
Malin said the government was nevertheless willing to amend these laws if and when necessary, adding that they had already conducted a public forum to discuss improving the laws.
“If they have concerns they can raise it and we can discuss amending the law for the sake of our society. But we see that after these laws were passed, only a handful of media, trade unions and society groups were not happy,” he said.
The UN also highlighted concerns over democracy in Cambodia, pointing towards the “dissolution of the main opposition party [the CNRP]” in the run up to July’s national elections.
National Election Committee (NEC) deputy secretary-general Som Sorida said in response that the NEC was respecting the law and that it was not involved in the dissolution of any political party.
He added that election law did not require the participation of a small or big opposition parties. But what was important, he said, was the legitimacy of the law.
The independence of the UN-sponsored Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia (ECCC) was also cited as a concern among UN experts.
UNHRC said comments by high-ranking government officials stating there were no more cases left to try at the ECCC, following guilty verdicts against former Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan last month, was “interference” with the functioning and independence of the tribunal.
ECCC spokesperson Neth Pheaktra responded that the tribunal was established through an agreement between the UN and the Cambodian government to independently prosecute the crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge’s Democratic Kampuchea era, and rejected suggestions of government interference.
“Judges, co-prosecutors, lawyers and all legal officers at the ECCC work and decide independently without any interference. Neither Cambodia nor the UN can decide to end the investigation, but only a judicial body can make the decision,” Pheatra said.
He said Deputy Prime Minister Bin Chhin – the Cambodian government’s Khmer Rouge Tribunal taskforce chairman – recently met with UN under-secretary-general for legal affairs and UN legal counsel, Miguel de Serpa Soares. Pheatra said Bin Chhin reiterated the government’s support for the ECCC, saying it wanted it to fulfil and complete its mandate with due process, dignity and honour.