(Phnom Penh, February 23, 2006) – Five leading international organizations from Asia, Europe, and the United States today called for Cambodia's international donors to intensify pressure on the Cambodian government to end its repression of fundamental human rights and the pillaging of Cambodia’s state land and natural resources.
A private letter to the donors from the five nongovernmental organizations – Human Rights Watch, Global Witness, the International Federation for Human Rights, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, and the Asian Human Rights Commission – was made public today.
The groups urged Cambodia’s donors to continue to support civil society, defend the rights of individuals and organizations to criticize and peacefully protest government activity, and insist that the Cambodian government fully comply with its prior commitments to address corruption and misuse of natural resources.
Recent events, including the jailing of government critics, attempts to weaken independent media and the political opposition, and forcible crackdowns on village protests, fly in the face of commitments the government has made over the years to the Cambodian people and donors alike, the groups said.
“Donors should not be lulled into thinking the situation has improved. This is a decade-old pattern: assurances by the government right before donor meetings, followed by a return to the old ways afterwards,” said Basil Fernando, executive director of the Asian Human Rights Commission.
The monitoring groups said that detentions and subsequent releases of civil society leaders Cheam Channy, Mam Sonando, Kem Sokha, and others – directly ordered by Prime Minister Hun Sen – have highlighted Cambodia's longstanding lack of an independent judiciary and rule of law.
“The prime minister’s moves to release people who never should have been arrested in the first place should not be seen as meaningful progress,” said Sidiki Kaba, President of the International Federation for Human Rights. “In fact, the events of the past year have dealt a significant blow to human rights and the rule of law.”
Meanwhile, the groups said, attention has been diverted from a host of pressing issues in Cambodia, including poverty reduction, rampant land grabbing, and endemic corruption, which the government has consistently failed to meaningfully address.
Fraudulent confiscation of farmers’ land and illegal logging impoverish the rural population, a high proportion of which depends on farming and forest products as a source of household income. Government authorities have threatened, attacked, and arrested villagers opposed to concessionaires’ activities or prohibited them from airing grievances in public. Villagers are being jailed on charges of destruction of property or criminal defamation when they protest against the loss of their land.
“Conflicts over land rights are increasingly going hand-in-hand with attacks against activists defending those rights,” said Anselmo Lee, executive director of FORUM-ASIA. “Meanwhile the government has failed to meet its prior Consultative Group pledges to stop allocating economic land concessions, end illegal logging, and prevent illegal land sales.”
The five groups called on the donors to increase their assistance through nongovernmental channels to promote human rights, development, the rule of law, counter-corruption, and media freedom. Budgetary support and development assistance to the government should be contingent on:
- Ceasing to harass and threaten civil society activists, journalists, and opposition party members and withdrawing all outstanding criminal defamation charges.
- Guaranteeing the rights of individuals and organizations to defend and promote human rights, including the right to peacefully criticize and protest government policies, in accordance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the 1998 United Nations General Assembly Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.
- Repealing the defamation, libel, disinformation, incitement, and other provisions in the criminal law that criminalize freedom of expression as protected by international law.
- Creating an independent and restructured National Election Committee.
- Liberalizing electronic media ownership rules, including allowing transmitters of private, critical media to be as strong as those of pro-government private stations.
- Complying fully with 2004 Consultative Group commitments to address corruption and misuse of natural resources and other state assets. These include public disclosure of information concerning management of land, forests, mineral deposits, and fisheries, as well as the location of military development zones.
- Meeting its commitment to cancel concessions and exploitation permits that have been granted illegally.
- Passing asset disclosure and anti-corruption laws that meet international standards and appointing an independent, international external auditor for government finances.
“Cambodia's development continues to be hampered by the country's poor governance. Donors need to make it clear that if key promises by the government in regard to protecting natural resources and human rights are not kept, there will be significant consequences,” said Patrick Alley, director of Global Witness.
The groups welcomed the prime minister’s February 14 call for defamation to be decriminalized, and urged the government to put the pledge into action by repealing or annulling all legal provisions that criminalize freedom of expression and passing a new criminal code in full compliance with international law as soon as possible.
During the month preceding the Consultative Group meeting, a number of police and government officials were transferred, demoted, or charged with corruption or other crimes, including some allegedly implicated in the killing of a judge in Phnom Penh and a logging scandal in Ratanakiri province. The groups said such actions appear designed to placate the donors rather than to tackle the serious problems underlying them.
“Select prosecutions of dispensable officials and the re-assignment do not constitute a serious attack on corruption or impunity,” said Alley. “These prosecutions reek of token efforts to appease the donors and allow the government to claim that some progress has been made.”
The five-page letter contains a chart that compares donors’ conditions from previous Consultative Group meetings against Cambodian government promises and the actual results.
“The Cambodian government is now at a crossroads. It can either develop institutions that will protect the fundamental human rights of its population or it can continue to violate those rights with impunity,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “But after years of unmet promises, it is certainly time for donors to demand results.”