CAMBODIA: The government should address rights abuses instead of attacking NGOs for reporting them — Asian Human Rights Commission

In February the US State Department released its “2008 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices”. The report on human rights in Cambodia stated that “the government’s human rights record remained poor” and detailed a long list of human rights abuses including extrajudicial killings by security forces, abuse of detainees, arbitrary arrests, land grabbing and forced evictions, restriction on freedom of express, and corruption.

A few week later, on 13 March, the Cambodian Foreign Ministry refuted the US allegations, saying, among other things, that “the report contains a number of unsubstantiated assertions which appear to be relied on misleading information supplied by certain organizations, which are monitored and financially supported by certain foreign countries.” Alluding to the revelations of torture in US-operated jails in Thailand, that ministry questioned the US’s high moral ground when it made such allegations against Cambodia.
Following this rejection of the allegations, local human rights NGOs came forth to defend the US report. “Most of the things in the report are obvious”, said an NGO leader. “I still trust the US report”, concurred the leader of a coalition of human rights NGOs.
A few days later, on 17 March, Hun Sen, the Prime Minister, irked as he was by the US report yet apparently obliged to tone down his Foreign Ministry’s strongly worded refutation, instead blasted human rights NGOs cited as sources of “misleading information” for the US report. He said, “Human rights NGOs are working only for salaries; if they didn’t criticize the government, they would be out of work; they would also have to close their doors if there were no assistance from abroad.” To hammer home his accusation of NGOs’ working for money and to destroy their credibility as sources of information, Hun Sen concluded that, “They have therefore to endeavour to fabricate stories to prove that the government has a poor human rights record.”
This charge by the country’s leader, well known as Cambodia’s strongman, has posed a serious threat to human rights NGOs and their freedom to work in the promotion and protection of human rights in the country. The charge could be used as yet another justification for the enactment of an NGO law to restrict their freedom and activities, a law which Hun Sen has insisted repeatedly upon as a matter of priority, the first and original justification being to ensure that NGOs are not funded by terrorist groups.

Prime Minister Hun Sen and his government should be reminded that Cambodia is bound by its international human rights obligations under the agreements concluded in Paris in 1991 to end the war in their country and duly signed by Hun Sen and a few other current Cambodian leaders themselves. Under those agreements Cambodia undertakes, among other things, “To support the right of all Cambodian citizens to undertake activities that would promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms”.

Under the same agreements, the other state parties undertake, among other things, “to promote and encourage respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms” in Cambodia. These other states include the US and the other permanent members of the UN Security Council, and Australia, Canada, India, Japan and all ASEAN countries (except Burma). The US and some other state parties have been discharging their obligations and have been giving assistance for the promotion and protection of human rights in Cambodia, including funding Cambodian human rights NGOs to work inside the country. A number of other countries have also given similar assistance for the same purpose.

Cambodian human rights NGOs are entitled to receive such assistance for human rights promotion and protection work. They are also entitled to cooperate with their donors for the same purposes. On top of their rights and entitlements under the same peace agreements, the Cambodian people, and human rights NGOs they have formed, have the constitutional “right to participate actively in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the nation.” Doing work to promote and protect human rights, including recording, investigating, criticizing violations and abuses, and providing assistance to victims of abuses, is one kind of participation in this life of the Cambodian nation, which has pledged, under the peace agreements, “to ensure respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms” in its territory.

Furthermore, criticism based on the discovery of what is wrong is simply an exercise of the right to freedom of expression and this right is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed and protected by the Cambodian constitution. It is also an integral part of Buddhist ethics in which a person who has investigated and penetrated into a matter can “speak of blame of one who should be blamed.” In reaction to such blame or the like, targeted lay persons should follow the Buddha’s teaching to monks, “not to be angry, resentful or upset” if others disparaged him, his teachings or the community of monks, but to “recognize whether what they say is right or not” and “explain what is incorrect as being incorrect.”

The leadership of Cambodia which is supposedly a liberal democracy and whose state religion is Buddhism should fully comply with the peace agreements and honour Cambodia’s international human rights obligations, and support the work of human rights NGOs. They should check the veracity of their reports and should take corrective measures whenever there were abuses as reported. If their reports were found to be “fabricated stories” as Hun Sen had alleged, then the Cambodian government should refute these stories and should not hesitate to take appropriate action against their author(s). The charge against human rights NGOs for “working for salaries” and for “fabricating stories” should not be used to justify the enactment of an NGO law to curtail their freedom and work, and to prevent them from making reports critical of the human rights situation in Cambodia.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-070-2009
Countries : Cambodia,