Press Conference, 2 May 2014, Phnom Penh
Good afternoon and thank you all for coming.
I am about to conclude my first visit to Cambodia as the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights.
During my five-day visit, I met with counterparts from the Royal Government, the United Nations Country Team and the diplomatic community, as well as civil society. The visit also allowed me to review the human rights situation in Cambodia, areas of progress and opportunities for improvement.
In this context, I held constructive meetings with the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, His Excellency Hor Nam Hong, and the President of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, His Excellency Om YengTieng, as well as with other authorities.
As is customary at the end of official missions such as this, I would like to make some observations and recommendations with regard to the current human rights situation in the country.
Freedom of expression and peaceful assembly
Cambodia has been lauded for the show of free expression seen in the second half of last year when the authorities generally showed a positive attitude towards public gatherings. Freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are essential ingredients for Cambodia’s democracy and for debating and resolving political issues.
However, I very much regret the incidents that led to the loss of at least six lives in the period between September 2013 and January 2014, as well as the disappearance of a 16-year-old, Khem Sophath who remains unaccounted for. The findings of investigations reportedly undertaken on the deaths have yet to be released and to date, no one has been held accountable. I call upon the authorities to step up their efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice without further delay.
I was deeply saddened to learn yesterday of the beating of a man at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park by district security guards. I was also concerned to learn that a number of journalists were reportedly hit by security guards while trying to photograph and record incidents around Freedom Park. The use of excessive force raises serious concerns about the role of district security guards in dealing with demonstrations and public order.
I regret having to assess that there has been a deterioration in 2014 in the extent to which freedom of expression and assembly in Cambodia are guaranteed and enjoyed. The ongoing ban on demonstrations in Phnom Penh, in force since 4 January, is an issue I raised with the authorities on several occasions this week. Recalling State obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to uphold the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, I reiterate the view that the ‘ban’ on demonstrations falls short of the test of legality, necessity, and proportionality. I urge the Government to take the necessary measures to remove this ban without further delay and to ensure that all citizens are able to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
During my visit, I had the opportunity to meet and discuss with many representatives from the country’s diverse and vibrant civil society – including NGOs, associations, trade unions and others – who continue to make an invaluable contribution to the country’s development and democratisation. I was informed about a number of draft laws which civil society fears may place onerous obligations on NGOs, associations, and trade unions and may erode the democratic space in which these entities operate. These draft laws include the draft Law on Associations and Non-Government Organisations and the draft Trade Union Law, and the draft Cybercrime Law which may place undue restrictions on online freedom for all Cambodian citizens. The Government should ensure that any legal measures it seeks to introduce to regulate the operations of NGOs, associations, and trade unions, as well as online activity, adhere to international standards for freedom of expression and association as guaranteed by the Covenant.
Rule of Law
Legal and judicial reforms remain central to efforts to ensure the rule of law in Cambodia. I have been told that three fundamental laws on the judiciary will be adopted some time soon. These laws are very important to promote and protect the independence of the judiciary and improve the administration of justice in the country.
I understand that the Government would like to see these laws adopted as soon as possible. At the same time, it is crucial that these laws are subject to broad based consultations with all concerned stakeholders and are brought into force only when they are in conformity with international standards. More generally, I strongly believe that it is in the interest of the Government to involve stakeholders in the drafting of laws to ensure that the process benefits from all available expert advice. From our experience, public participation in the drafting process improves the quality of draft laws, promotes buy-in and facilitates implementation after adoption of the laws.
I met with the President of the Court of Appeal and was encouraged to hear about the progress so far in improving court and case management at the Court of Appeal and cooperation between the courts and the prisons. Such efforts have already helped to significantly reduce the backlog of appeal cases.
Independence, transparency and adequate resourcing of the justice system are essential for people to be able to access effective remedies if their rights are being violated.
I had the chance to meet with some ECCC officials to hear more about progress in the prosecution of the terrible crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge period. What is happening at the ECCC is of historic importance. In spite of all the challenges, justice must take its course. Cambodians, old and young, expect that and we must all continue to support this process. I was very pleased to hear that some good practices from the ECCC are already making their way into the domestic system.
During the visit, I was also pleased to have had the opportunity to visit the Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation (TPO), an NGO assisting those suffering from poor mental health as a result of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime. I was deeply impressed by the commitment and dedication of staff. I was also struck by the importance of continuing to assist victims - I was pleased that the UN was able to directly assist victims through the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture.
Earlier today, I visited Correctional Centre 1 (CC1) and interviewed: Vorn Pao, who awaits trial on charges relating to the events of 2 January 2014; Nyguen Thydoc, who was convicted on charges arising from events at Kbal Thnal Bridge on 15 September 2013; and Vanny Vanon, who faces charges arising from events at Stung Meanchey on 12 November 2013. It is important that Vanny Vanon, his co-accused Meas Non and the 23 individuals charged in relation to events of 2/3 January receive fair trials on the basis of concrete material evidence.
I was impressed by my visit to CC1. The implementation of the Prison Reform Policy by the Government has resulted in many improvements in Cambodia’s prisons and correctional centres including improvements in detention conditions, treatment of prisoners and management and administration of facilities. Prisoners now have better access to water, sanitation, and ventilation.
Further, I am pleased at progress made by the General Department of Prisons in professionalising prison staff, securing their distinct legal status, and preparing a comprehensive training programme that instructs them on the international standards of their profession. I am encouraged by their cooperation with the Prison Reform Support Programme of OHCHR-Cambodia, including on access to prisons, as well as the cooperation of prison authorities with NGOs in the delivery of health and rehabilitation programs to prisons.
There remain challenges in the implementation of prison reform policy. The General Department of Prisons lacks capacity, prisons continue to be understaffed and very seriously overcrowded, with the national occupancy rate over 170% and with several prisons with occupancy rates of over 200%. However, I note with great satisfaction the constructive spirit of cooperation to address these challenges. I call on the Government to fulfill its obligations to properly resource the General Department of Prisons to permit it to do so.
Treatment that amounts to torture and ill-treatment of prisoners and detainees should be monitored by an independent National Prevention Mechanism (NPM), a requirement under the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, to which Cambodia is a party. I regret that to date no action toward the establishment of this vital mechanism is currently envisaged. I call on the Government to establish an independent NPM without delay.
With regard to land rights, I congratulate the Government for making remarkable progress in the implementation of systematic land registration. Approximately 2.6 million land titles have been delivered under the Land Administration Sub-Sector Programme in a little over a decade. This is a significant achievement. It is clear that Cambodia continues to take important steps forward in providing tenure security to all.
Having participated this week in a national consultation on the land rights of indigenous peoples, I have heard from individuals, families and whole communities that have been forcibly evicted from their land or live in fear of such action. While I commend the hundreds of student volunteers who placed themselves at the service of the nation to measure land so that families at risk can at last apply for legal titles, I note with concern that the process of land titling has left certain vulnerable communities excluded. I call on the authorities to streamline and expedite the process, beginning with the establishment of clear lines of responsibility among the relevant ministries and a comprehensive and publicly accessible national database of land ownership. Targeted measures aimed at facilitating collective land titling for indigenous peoples are also necessary.
Access to information, transparency and accountability in land titling and management of land concessions remains of real concern. Land concessions for agro-industrial plantations can impair communities’ traditional livelihoods and leave vulnerable communities prone to the risk of landlessness and increased poverty. The promotion of private sector investment must not come at the expense of, or take precedence over compliance with the requirements of the law, or respect for the basic rights of either indigenous groups or individual families.
Yesterday, I visited a re-settlement site housing victims of a forced eviction, a site that is so remote that no viable economic activity is possible. The community relies on charities for the essentials of life. I was told that some women in the community had resorted to selling their hair, or even to prostitution, in order to earn money for the family.
Earlier in the week I also met with a number of urban-poor communities who described to me their fight for adequate housing and for justice. I was moved by the bravery of these individuals and also by the efforts of civil society organisations to improve the living conditions of urban poor families. I urge the Government to continue to develop and define minimum standards and procedural safeguards regulating eviction and relocation. Living conditions in re-settlement sites must meet the criteria set out in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which Cambodia is a party.
The issue of the transfer or resettlement of refugees, asylum seekers or migrants was one of the topics I discussed with H.E. Hor Nam Hong, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs. I would like to dispel the impression that my comments on the subject represented a UN endorsement on this prospective arrangement. As I said, too little is known about the specifics to make any firm assessment. There are, however, clear international commitments that must be respected.
Any person being transferred to Cambodia, regardless of their legal status, is entitled to protection from refoulement. I should also note that Cambodia is a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and in accepting asylum seekers or refugees for resettlement it will need to comply with its obligations towards this group of people. In the case of refugees, the receiving state must have in place appropriate procedures and an adequately resourced integration programme that ensures access to basic social services and employment. Cambodia must fulfil its obligations towards these people, whether under the Refugee Convention or under the core international human rights instruments.
In my discussions, the Government reaffirmed its commitment to upholding international standards and that this agreement will only be implemented with the voluntary acceptance of the individuals concerned.
Any visitor to Cambodia cannot but note the remarkable economic progress achieved –Cambodia is in many ways a different country than the one I visited some four years ago. This achievement is important and should be applauded, as economic growth can help further the protection of human rights, in particular economic and social rights.
In the course of this week, I met with many beneficiaries of these changes, but also many who are still waiting for the benefits to reach them, and others who have decided to become agents for change. Underlying the currently robust economy is a dynamic society that is ready to participate in building its own future. I leave Cambodia today with a better picture of the challenges currently faced by the country, as well as hopes that progress for all is possible.
OHCHR remains as ever, committed to working together with the Government and the people of Cambodia towards the future of prosperity, justice and participation for all in the country.
Thank you for your attention.
For more information, please contact:
In Phnom Penh: Olga Nakajo (+ 41 79 444 4332 / firstname.lastname@example.org) and Bushra Rahman (+855 (0)12 79 01 78 / email@example.com)
In Geneva: Cécile Pouilly (+41 22 917 9310 / firstname.lastname@example.org) or Ravina Shamdasani (+ 41 22 917 9169 / email@example.com )
For more information on the work of OHCHR in Cambodia, see OHCHR-Cambodia website (http://cambodia.ohchr.org/)
To readthe latest report of the Secretary-General to the Human Rights Council on the role and achievements of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in assisting the Government and people of Cambodia in the promotion and protection of human rights (A/HRC/24/32), please go to: http://cambodia.ohchr.org/WebDOCs/DocReports/3-SG-RA-Reports/A_HRC_24_32_ENG_SG_report_2013.pdf
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