The EU ambassador to Cambodia has called human rights “a work in progress” and said the 28-nation bloc has “carefully” noted last week’s statement by the government on taking further steps to strengthen democracy and the political sphere in the Kingdom.
The EU marked Human Rights Day on Monday at the Institute of Cambodia with hundreds of guests from the government and civil society. This year’s event was particularly significant as it celebrated the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948.
Speaking to the media, EU Ambassador to Cambodia George Edgar said the Kingdom had made plenty of progress over the past 20 years, particularly in economic development.
This, he said, translated into improving the lives of the poor, and in health and education services.
He said he expected to see further progress in terms of human rights.
“Anywhere in the world, human rights are a work in progress. I hope to see continuing forward progress in Cambodia in terms of a range of rights being more fully embedded in a way that all relevant systems work … in the way that society works,” he said.
However, Edgar said the EU had been concerned about the general situation of human rights in Cambodia over recent years, in particular, certain events that affected political rights.
“We carefully note statements from the government, particularly from last week, which contain positive developments, and we look forward to seeing that development in practice,” he said.
Last week, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation announced the steps being taken to strengthen democracy and the political space.
At the time the EU was in the process of withdrawing Cambodia’s access to the preferential “Everything But Arms”(EBA) agreement.
EBA allows Cambodia to import goods duty and tariff free into the bloc. It is worth $676 million annually to the Kingdom’s economy.
Edgar said there have been talks between the parties since the EU’s notification in early October of the start of the EBA withdrawal process.
However, he stressed that the 12-month withdrawal procedure had not yet begun.
“Since then, there had been contacts at a senior official level. And I expect those contacts to continue,” he said.
Chak Sopheap, the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), welcomed the government’s announcement last week but noted a difference between Human Rights Day celebrations at the national and local levels.
She said at the national level, the celebrations went smoothly, but some events in certain communities were interrupted by local authorities.
Sopheap mentioned incidents in Preah Vihear and Svay Rieng provinces, and a planned march by workers’ unions in Phnom Penh not being granted permission.
She said the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration was a reminder to the government about its duty to protect human rights.
“We hope that this 70th Human Rights Day is a reminder for all of us, in particular for the government, which has the duty to guarantee the respect of human rights."
“The government should review to what extent it has fulfilled this duty. And the community should know if they have fully exercised their rights,” she said.
Sopheap said respect for human rights should shine throughout the system and not come by way of just an announcement.
The President of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee Keo Remy said human rights problems occur in every country regardless of size.
“If we research worldwide reports by Human Rights Watch and [other] independent civil society organisations, [we see] human rights problems happen in every country. Whether small or big … they still happen,” he said.
He said Cambodia has been through many troubling times, in particular, the Khmer Rouge regime of 1975-79, and real peace only came into existence in 1998.
He said Cambodia is open to using social media and is free of conflict in terms of the right to religious practice, unlike some countries.
But he warned that such freedom must not be used to affect that of others, calling on people to protect peace by avoiding protests or insurrections which could see the Kingdom again fall into chaos.