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Cambodia’s First Universal Periodic Review: A Lengthy List of Human Rights Challenges Ahead for the Country Hiding behind the ‘Retrospective of the Past’

Phnom Penh, Geneva, 2 December 2009 - The first Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on Cambodia was conducted by the UN Human Rights Council in its Working Group session held on Tuesday 1 December 2009 at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. The UPR is a new mechanism that allows a review of the human rights records of all 192 UN member States once every four years. During yesterday’s 3-hour proceedings, the Cambodian delegation led by Mr. Ith Rady, Secretary of State of the Ministry of Justice together with Ambassador Sun Suon of the Permanent Representative of Cambodia to the UN in Geneva, presented the achievements and developments of the human rights situation in the country, extensively focusing in particular on its poverty reduction strategies and plans. The Cambodian delegation however over-emphasised ‘its own historical and socio-economic context’ as a least developed country in a post-conflict setting, rather than recognising the reality of its human rights challenges in a frank and substantive manner.

“The concerns of the international community regarding the gravity of forced evictions in Cambodia are unequivocal. The Cambodian authorities must immediately adopt a moratorium on evictions, until they are able to guarantee that all relocated families are effectively granted housing and appropriate compensation” said Dr. PUNG Chhiv Kek, President of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO).

“We cannot but question whether the Cambodian delegation was serious when expressing its hope that the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) will become a model court for future judicial systems not only in Cambodia but also for the world. The ECCC have faced persistent allegations of corruption and political interference undermining the independence of their work. We appeal to the Cambodian government to sincerely address these problems” said Mr. Thun Saray, President of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC).

Meanwhile, the member States participating in yesterday’s interactive dialogue appreciated some of the progress made in Cambodia with respect to economic development, poverty reduction, institutional frameworks for human rights such as complaints-receiving bodies, abolishment of death penalty as well as other various initiatives for legislations and legal reforms. At the same time, a series of concerns and critical comments were raised on the pressing human rights issues in Cambodia, inter alia, forced evictions, independence of the judiciary, freedom of assembly and expression, restriction and intimidation of human rights defenders, the media and political opponents, pre-trial detention, urban and rural inequality, violence against women, worst forms of child labour. The recent lifting of several Members of Parliament's immunity was also addressed by many countries.

“We welcome those pin-pointing recommendations with regard to the situation of freedom of expression in the country. We deeply regret however that the Cambodian delegation merely repeated that freedom of expression is enshrined in the Constitution as one of the fundamental rights while asserting that the government would not tolerate social disorder or endangering national unity and security. We do not see how human rights defenders who are protecting fundamental rights such as land and housing rights with peaceful means, can be perceived as a threat to social order or national security” said Mr. Yap Swee Seng, Executive Director of the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA). “We call on the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) to assist and monitor the implementation of the UPR Working Group’s recommendations by the Cambodian government.”

Key recommendations put forward to Cambodia at the UPR Working Group include among others:

1.      Fully implement the 2001 Land Law and institute a moratorium on evictions until safeguards such as prior consultation, full compensation and access to basic services and infrastructure in relocation areas can be guaranteed;

2.      Strengthen the efforts to protect freedom of expression and the rights of human rights defenders, journalists and trade unions by safeguarding their freedom of assembly and association;

3.      Define the scope of defamation and disinformation charges to ensure that the recent approved Penal Code will not be abused to infringe on freedom of expression;

4.      Ensure the independence and impartiality of the judicial system and take measures to ensure equal access to justice;

5.      Ensure that all allegations of corruption are immediately investigated by an independent mechanism;

6.      Intensify its efforts against domestic and sexual violence against women, inter alia in the context of human trafficking, by addressing the root causes of the problems such as gender-based poverty and by developing gender-sensitive poverty reduction strategies;

7.      Considering the current low public expenditure which makes only 3.5 % of the GDP, intensify public expenditure to enhance the realization of economic, social and cultural rights,;

8.      Pay special attention to the needs of vulnerable groups such as women in rural areas, children, persons with disabilities, the elderly, indigenous and ethnic communities by creating necessary conditions for their access to basic education, medical and other social services;

9.      Revise the laws on trade unions and establish a labor court in an effort to guarantee respect for workers’ rights and to provide legal and efficient solutions to labor disputes;

10.  Conduct a broad consultation with civil society in the follow-up process of the UPR outcome and ensure that the proposed NGO Law does not create more difficulties to the work environment of civil society;

11.  Advance the process of establishing an independent and competent national human rights institution in line with the Paris Principles and in consultation with all relevant stakeholders;

12.  Promote human rights education and training at all levels including for judges, prosecutors and government officials;

13.  Extend a standing invitation to all special procedures and accept the existing country visit requests made by the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers and the Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.

The report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review of Cambodia will be adopted at the next regular session of the UN Human Rights Council in March 2010. “We call on the Cambodian authorities to publicise and disseminate widely this report and to ensure its follow-up. We will be closely monitoring whether Cambodia takes genuine steps to implement the recommendations contained in the report” said Souhayr Belhassen, President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

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