UN rights experts denounce ‘concerted attempt’ to erode civic space in Cambodia

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A sewage canal flows through the impoverished neighborhood of Stung Meachey, in the south of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. — courtesy UNICEF/Cristofolett
A sewage canal flows through the impoverished neighborhood of Stung Meachey, in the south of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. — courtesy UNICEF/Cristofolett

PHNOM PENH — Voicing concerns over increasing restrictions on the civil society in Cambodia, a group of independent UN human rights experts have called for an immediate end to the systematic detention and criminalization of activists.

In a statement on Monday, Mary Lawlor, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said she was “alarmed” by credible reports that at least 21 human rights defenders have been subjected to threats, arbitrary arrests and detentions in the past three months.

“I have reviewed publicly available footage where excessive force has been used by the security forces to prohibit human rights defenders, many of them women, from exercising their rights to peaceful assembly. Promotion and protection of human rights through peaceful means is not a crime,” she said.

Lawlor referred to several cases in which detention has reportedly been used to punish human rights defenders for carrying out their work.

Rights defender Rong Chhun was arrested on July 31 after taking up the case of farmers in Tbong Khmom province who had their land taken in connection with a border demarcation between Cambodia and Viet Nam.

Subsequently, several other human rights defenders who protested his detention were also arrested. Twelve remain in pre-trial detention, have been denied bail, and are facing charges punishable by up to two years in prison.

‘Circular pattern’ of detention

“Human rights defenders should never be criminalized for their courageous efforts to protect the rights of others ... I am increasingly concerned by the circular pattern of detaining them for advocating against the detention of or violations against fellow defenders,” said Lawlor.

“There seems to be no limit to who the authorities will target, making their actions in recent months appear as a concerted attempt to erode civic space and stifle the work of human rights defenders,” she added.

Rhona Smith, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, also voiced concerns over the restrictions, urging the authorities to end “this harmful approach to human rights defenders and facilitate freedom of expression and assembly, for the benefit of all members of society in Cambodia.”

The statement was also endorsed by the special rapporteurs on the rights of peaceful assembly and association, and on the freedom of opinion and expression, and the members of Working Group on discrimination against women and girls.

The Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. The experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity. — UN News


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