PHNOM PENH: The United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia called on the government on Wednesday (Mar 14) to “choose the path of human rights”, while expressing serious concerns about restrictions on the media, freedom of expression and political participation ahead of a national election in July.
“Cambodia is at an important crossroads and must embrace human rights as they are indispensable in sustaining hard-earned peace and development,” Rhona Smith said after a 10-day visit to the kingdom.
Smith held talks with several high-ranking officials during what was her fifth official visit to Cambodia. Among the officials included National Assembly president Heng Samrin and Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng.
In a news release issued on Wednesday, Smith said restricting the voice of Cambodians could threaten the stability that the government and the people have worked hard to build.
She expressed concerns about restrictions on the media, local radio stations and national newspapers, the dissolution of the main opposition party and the imprisonment of political opponents and human right activists.
“The right to political participation and freedom of expression are of particular importance during electoral processes. The authorities have a responsibility to ensure that individuals, political parties and the media can operate without being threatened or sanctioned,” she said.
In September last year, Kem Sokha - the then president of the main opposition party Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) - was arrested and charged with treason, a charge the party has denied. In November, the CNRP was dissolved by the Supreme Court and 118 of CNRP's senior officials were banned from political activity for five years. Some of its members are living in exile.
In 2016, four staff members from the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) and an official from the National Election Committee (NEC) were charged and imprisoned, before they were released on bail in June 2017 after spending 14 months in pre-trial detention.
In addition, two reporters, who had in the past worked for Radio Free Asia, were also charged with espionage and imprisoned, while two former Cambodia Daily reporters also were charged with incitement in 2017.
“I repeated my call on the government to restore the space for any Cambodians to exercise the right to stand for election without fear or intimidation. I also call for an urgent reconsideration of the blanket ban on 118 political actors,” said Smith.
However, Sok Eysan, spokesman for Cambodian People Party (CPP), rejected the UN rapporteur's concerns and assessment.
“I think the assessment from Ms Rhona Smith is not linked to the reality of Cambodian society,” Eysan said. “If Cambodia has human rights violations, or democracy has become narrowed down as she said, we will not be able to maintain peace, political stability and the remarkable progress in the country.
“Cambodia is already in sustainable peace and there is no chaos like other countries,” he said.
“There are no bomb blasts like in the Middle East or any shootings like in the United States. So it means that the situation in Cambodia is good. Why did she say it is not good? What she said is opposite of the truth.”
Asked about the legitimacy of the upcoming election, Sok Eysan said he was not worried about elections not being held in a free and fair manner, adding that only a few countries do not accept Cambodia’s electoral process.
Smith will present her full report from the visit to the Human Rights Council in Geneva in September.