[:an opinion] Is Cambodia ready to have a National Human Rights Institution?
21 December 2023 8:44 am
Written by: The Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC)
Cambodia is a constitutional, liberal, and multiparty democracy. However, its human rights situation is continuously deteriorating.
In a socio-political climate where opposition voices are stifled, civic space is continuously shrinking, and the most fundamental of freedoms are trampled, it feels premature to be talking about establishing an efficient, independent, and credible national human rights institution (NHRI). Since the royal government of Cambodia failed to improve and restore human rights, and political rights situation in the country, especially the rule of law, which was recommended by a special rapporteur during the Human Rights Council reviews in Geneva in 2014
The ratified international mechanisms have not been adhered to or earnestly applied in Cambodia’s policies. Specifically concerning democratic processes, the Cambodian government dissolved the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), the primary opposition party, and imposed a five-year ban on 118 CNRP leaders, prohibiting their involvement in any political activities. Additionally, government authorities arrested, threatened, and violated CNRP activists to deter their participation in opposition activities. The 2018 national election lacked a genuine opposition, as no real opposition or potential political parties collaborated to contest the election, and the National Election Committee (NEC) was perceived as impartial.
The proposal to establish the NHRI in Cambodia, with technical support from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia, has encountered challenges. The processes have faced difficulties due to the absence of support from independent civil society organizations. Before establishing the NHRI, the primary requirements requested by CHRC and OHCHR are for the government of Cambodia to enact laws for NHRI establishment, adhere to the Paris Principles, and address human rights and political issues in alignment with the rule of law. Additionally, it is emphasized that the NHRI must operate independently, free from any government influence.
The foremost proposal put forth by independent CSOs is that the National Election Committee (NEC) should maintain neutrality, include multiple political parties in the national assembly, and foster an open civic space for civil society. Furthermore, there is an emphasis on the release of all human rights activists and conscientious prisoners.
Given how little of an improvement has been made on that front, with the recommendations of the civil society organisations (CSOs) not being taken into consideration by the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, it is highly doubtful that the Cambodian Government could establish an NHRI that would be compliant with the Paris Principles. The latter sets the international minimum standards for an effective and credible NHRI.
Why Cambodia is not yet ready
According to the Paris Principles, NHRIs need to be independent from governmental control. Likewise, political plurality must exist in the country.
In Cambodia, that is hardly the case.
With the main opposition party banned by the Supreme Court in 2017 and the most recent opposition to the ruling party barred from even participating in the recent 2023 Elections, it is obvious that the conditions required by the Paris Principles are not currently present in the Cambodian political spectrum.
Even worse, the livelihoods of activists, human rights defenders (HRDs), and media workers in Cambodia are at risk daily. Arbitrary arrests, detentions, threats and intimidation are the norm.
It has not even been too long since the country’s last remaining independent news outlet, the ‘Voice of Democracy,’ was shut down and forced off the air. Under this pretext, it is evident that Cambodia currently does not have the capacity to create and operate an effective and credible NHRI.
The Cambodian Government has appeared committed to pushing through with reforms for the establishment of such an institution yet failed to restore and improve the country’s deteriorating human rights situation, democracy, and rule of law as requested by local CSOs, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia, and the people themselves.
An NHRI plays a vital role in ensuring the stability of a democracy and in protecting human rights for all. The effectiveness of an NHRI, however, largely depends on its ability to maintain its independence, and on the government’s willingness to respect human rights, uphold the rule of law, maintain political pluralism and welcome opposition, and collaborate with CSOs.
Does the Cambodian Government meet these criteria?
What can Cambodia do
Having an NHRI is very important for Cambodia.
Just like in any country, Cambodia’s to-be established NHRI would need to abide by the Paris Principles and be fully independent from the government.
For Cambodia to be able to establish an effective and credible NHRI, the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association recommends the following concrete actions:
- First, we strongly urge the government to introduce reforms easing civil society restrictions to make the climate under which the NHRI will operate more conducive. Likewise, the government must take all necessary steps towards maintaining a clear separation of powers, ensuring the provision of rule of law in the country whilst also providing assurances of the credibility of the NHRI.
- In addition, we call on the CHRC to consider implementing human rights education to such as civil society as part of the establishment of an NHRI. The government must strengthen its efforts to include non-governmental organisations, civil society, and HRDs in the NHRI establishment process, actively listening to their inputs, suggestions, and concerns.
- We also urge the government to protect journalists and media workers, ensuring that press freedom, freedom of expression, and people’s right to access information remain intact. The government must review laws that might be restricting or hindering the work of journalists.
- Lastly, we call on the government to take all appropriate measures to establish a multiparty system, increasing fairness and transparency in electoral processes and decision-making.
If Cambodia is ultimately successful in establishing an effective and credible NHRI, it can contribute to holding government institutions and other entities accountable for human rights abuses, acts as a safeguard to monitor, investigate and address human rights violations.
A functional NHRI can provide valuable input and recommendations to policymakers, helping to shape legislation and policies that align with human rights standards and can facilitate access to justice for victims of human rights violations