Cambodia: Stop backsliding and expand freedom – UN expert
06 October 2021
GENEVA (6 October, 2021) – Warning that Cambodia is “backsliding” away from democracy, a UN human rights expert today called on the government to act on a number of fronts to expand civic and democratic space.
“Suspend draconian laws and reform them,” said Vitit Muntarbhorn, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia. “Drop court cases and end the detention of those who disagree with the authorities. Restore political rights to members of the political opposition, and propel reconciliation. Share the power and end the monopoly.”
He made the comments in presenting his first report on the situation of human rights in Cambodia to the Human Rights Council. The shrinking civic and democratic space is particularly worrying, he said, given that the country this month will mark the 30th anniversary of signing of the Paris Peace Accords, which saw Cambodia emerge from decades of genocide and war.
“Now we see disturbing backsliding,” Muntarbhorn said. This was recently illustrated by the Government’s handling of the COVIID-19 pandemic, he said. While praising the vaccination drive and social protection programs undertaken by the Government, Muntarbhorn reflected on the so-called “anti-COVID-19 law” that has seen hundreds of people arrested, and calls for prison terms of up to 20 years
“Intolerance towards online criticism of the COVID-19 response has led to arrests and prosecutions with a chilling impact on freedom of expression, leading to both self-censorship and censorship,” he said.
He also highlighted the 25 human rights defenders currently in Cambodian’s prison system; the conviction of nine senior opposition political figures sentenced to up to 25 years; and 50 reported instances of harassment of journalists this year.
Against the backdrop of this political clampdown, Muntarbhorn expressed concern about the environment for commune elections in 2022 and national elections in 2023, which may take place without the existence of a viable opposition party, endangering people’s right to genuinely participate in public affairs.
However, solutions are a simple matter of political will and conduct, he said. As Special Rapporteur, Muntarbhorn said he will emphasise dialogue, learning and exchange with a wide variety of actors.
Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn was appointed Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia in March 2021. Professor Vitit is a Thai law Professor with longstanding experience working pro bono for the UN on human rights. He has helped the UN in a variety of positions, including as former UN Special Rapporteur on the Sale of Children, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Democratic People Republic of Korea, former UN Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, former Chairperson of the UN appointed Commission of Inquiry on the Ivory Coast, and former member of the UN appointed Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic.
Professor Vitit is a Professor Emeritus at the Faculty of Law, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok. He is a graduate of Oxford University (M.A.,B.C.L. (Oxon.) and Universite Libre de Bruxelles (Licence Speciale en Droit Europeen (Brux.)). He is also a Barrister at Law (the Middle Temple, London). For several years, Professor Vitit Co-Chaired the Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism. He has published widely on International Law, Human Rights, International Humanitarian Law, and Law and Development. He is the recipient of a number of awards, including the 2004 UNESCO Human Rights Education Prize. He was bestowed a Knighthood (KBE) in 2018.
Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.