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End of the mandate statement by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia

30 April 2021

Today I finish my six-year tenure as the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia. On 1 May 2021, Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn takes over the mandate. The following statement marks the conclusion of the period of my mandate as I transition responsibility to Professor Muntarbhorn for monitoring, advising and reporting on human rights in the country.

It is now two years since I last visited Cambodia. In that period, I have maintained regular contact with members of the Royal Government, UN Country Team, civil society and member states and am thankful that I have continued to receive information from a range of these sources.

I thank the Royal Government for extending its support, cooperation and constructive dialogue to the mandate during its tenure and I hope similar support and cooperation, including unfettered access to the country, will be extended to Professor Muntarbhorn. I would also like to thank those members of the OHCHR Field Office and OHCHR in Geneva, as well as the UN Country Team, who have offered and provided support to the mandate.

2020-2021 has been impacted by the SARS-COV-2 global pandemic which, as of April 2021, is being more acutely experienced in Cambodia with ongoing community transmissions alongside the rollout of vaccines: the current figures recorded by the World Health Organisation are 11761 reported positive cases; 88 recorded deaths and 1,915,966 vaccinations. I extend my deepest condolences to all those who have lost family and friends to the virus.  I also reiterate my support for the Government navigating a fast-changing environment.

The Government’s proclaimed priority is saving lives. However, all universal rights are interdependent, indivisible and interrelated. Failing to recognise this risks violating some rights whilst protecting others, further marginalising vulnerable groups, leaving people behind, excluded from protection. Applied through the Royal Government’s Rectangular Strategy, a human rights based approach offers a route through the pandemic that best respects the rights and freedoms of all.

The Royal Government has the opportunity to learn from the successes and mistakes of other governments around the world as it seeks to control and suppress community transmissions. I call upon the Government to work with its development partners, its international and regional partners, and the UN Country Team to continually review, revise and improve its responses to the evolving challenges. As has often been stated with reference to the vaccination campaigns around the world, ‘no one is safe until everyone is safe’, highlighting the importance of regional and international solidarity and partnerships.

I took up the mandate just before the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations (LANGO) was enacted. The application of LANGO and the trade union laws continues to impact on the civic space in the country. Whilst I previously welcomed the willingness of the Government to review and, as necessary, revise the law, it is regrettable that there has been little evidence over the last year of meaningful ongoing consultation and reform.

I am concerned that at least 18 human rights defenders are currently in detention facing charges for incitement to commit felony, including a young female activist. When civil society organisations engage in legitimate human rights advocacy, their voices should be heard and respected, not pilloried.

I understand that many civil society organisations provide valuable service provision throughout the country, and are viewed as partners of the Government. Civil society organisations remain a beacon of hope in the country, and the Government can yet harness some of their enthusiasm, knowledge and potential, celebrating their achievements, even if respectfully disagreeing with some of their expressed views.

It is concerning that the 2017-2018 elections, as altered by the redistribution of CNRP commune/sangkat seats following its dissolution by the Supreme Court, resulted in a de facto one party state. I hope that the necessary amendments to the political parties law and other election reforms will facilitate 2022-2023 elections returning Cambodia to a multilateral, plural democracy as foreseen by the Constitution. Greater political debate with diverse views being expressed and reflected upon will contribute to a more positive political environment. I have reiterated my calls for political rapprochement and reconciliation. However, there is very little evidence that the Government is genuinely seeking political dialogue. The recent mass trials and convictions of senior former CNRP officials limit opportunities for moving beyond the current situation.

Over the last year, there has been considerable success in reducing the backlog of cases pending before the courts. This has resulted in freeing a number of people from detention and providing legal determinations of cases. I reiterate the importance of ensuring that the fair trial rights of everyone are fully respected and appropriate evidentiary standards of proof are developed to ensure all laws are fairly and consistently applied.

I remain concerned at the prevalence of pre-trial detention and support the ongoing efforts of the Ministry of Justice to restrict pre-trial detention and to explore non-custodial sentencing in the circumstances stipulated in the criminal code. I also encourage further consideration of drafting evidence rules.

More generally, I repeat my call for a systematic review of all national laws to determine their continued utility and to ascertain their compliance with the range of international human rights standards Cambodia has voluntarily accepted and which the Constitution enshrines. One certainty in a de facto one party state is that the government has sole responsibility for ensuring the laws and policies of the country comply with all the country’s human rights commitments.

When I assumed the mandate in 2015, my predecessor indicated that land was the number one human rights issue in Cambodia. Whilst progress has been made by the Government, including on communal land titling, land remains a contentious issue. The system of communal land titling could be streamlined and simplified as could responses to conflicting land claims.

Balancing the needs of development with the need to recognise pre-existing access to and use of land is challenging, and I repeat my previous calls for a holistic approach to land use and rights as well as full free prior informed consent for relocations when they are necessary.

Even before the pandemic impacted on trade and tourism in the Kingdom, I was concerned at the human rights dimensions of indebtedness in the country. Many Cambodians are borrowing money and repaying debts at a level which seriously limits their disposable income. This in turn compromises their (and their families) enjoyment of an adequate standard of living. Whether migrant workers, formal or informal sector workers or small business and farm owners, borrowing money is often necessary to survive. Official figures reported by the World Bank indicate that around half a million more people were identified as newly poor in 2020 bringing the total of those receiving cash transfers to 2.8 million people, with another 4.5 million classed as near-poor and particularly vulnerable to return to poverty.

The impact of the pandemic on global trade has somewhat masked the impact of the European Union’s partial withdrawal of preferential tariffs in 2020 (Everything But Arms).  Planning is necessary for changes to Cambodia’s future trading partners and export sectors.

I welcome the efforts of the government to financially compensate many of those impacted by the pandemic and by national COVID-19 restrictions. Unfortunately, the pandemic has not yet run its course and more extensive continuing support for many is likely to be needed. As the experience of other states has shown, this necessitates considerable budgetary resources. Ensuring everyone has adequate housing, food, clean water and healthcare is crucial.

Finally, the current pandemic, whilst shocking and devastating, brings many countries to crossroads. There is an opportunity to reset. International human rights offers a framework for states to build back better and stronger after the pandemic, supporting fairer, more inclusive societies. Respecting, promoting and protecting human rights, progressing the Sustainable Development Goals and advancing the principles of the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction offer a framework for successfully addressing the pandemic, ameliorating its impact and allowing the country to ‘build back better’.

Cambodians, more than many peoples, have demonstrated time and time again their extraordinary resilience and their capacity to rebuild their country. Whilst the ultimate impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic is not yet clear, it is without a doubt the case that more lives will be lost and livelihoods endangered or destroyed. In the immediate future, everyone has a role to play in protecting themselves and others from infection. This can include working from home when practicable, wearing facemasks, regularly washing hands, maintaining social distancing and limiting non-essential travel as well as participating in the global vaccination drive. Similarly, everyone has a role to play working together to advance human rights and to continue building back a better Cambodia.

It has been an honour and privilege to serve the people of Cambodia over the last six years. I extend my humblest gratitude to all I have met and I wish Professor Muntarbhorn well with his work.