Quietly Released US Rights Report Slams Courts, Corruption

The U.S. State Department released its annual human rights report on Friday with little fanfare, repeating longstanding past concerns with Cambodia’s judiciary, corruption and intimidation of civil society to an increasingly unreceptive government.

In a break with past precedent, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson opted not to unveil the report in person in what critics signaled a diminished focus on human rights under U.S. President Donald Trump.

A former US Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski, center, speaks to reporters at the US Embassy in Phnom Penh in 2016. (US Embassy)

But in Cambodia, the conclusion of the report, which was largely compiled by local embassies using academic, media and NGO sources under former U.S. President Barack Obama, was little changed from the year before.

“The most significant human rights problems included a politicized and ineffective judiciary; increased restrictions on freedoms of speech, assembly, and association; and the use of violence and imprisonment—both actual and threatened—to intimidate the political opposition and civil society as well as to suppress dissenting voices,” the report says, repeating almost verbatim its 2015 findings.

The State Department reserved some of its harshest language for the judicial system, noting the power of the executive branch to appoint, dismiss and discipline judges.

“High levels of corruption and inefficiency existed in the judicial branch, and the government did not provide for due process,” it says.

The report does draw from events over the past year, including the jailing of five current and former employees from rights group Adhoc as well as the murder of political analyst Kem Ley.

“As the country prepared for commune elections in 2017 and national elections in 2018, civil society and human rights activists reportedly feared the government would employ additional tactics to suppress those who oppose its views,” the report says.

The Cambodian government canceled its annual military exercises with the U.S. in January, while Prime Minister Hun Sen has repeatedly slammed the country for demanding repayment of a Second Indochina War-era debt and accused the U.S of its own human rights abuses, including killing Cambodian children during the 1960s and 1970s, in what analysts say are the latest signs of a pivot by Cambodia toward China and away from the U.S.

Nonetheless, Mr. Hun Sen supported Mr. Trump’s campaign and last week seemed sympathetic to the administration’s fraught relationship with the media.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the report repeated old claims with a hostility that did nothing to better relations between the two countries.

“This report is against what Donald Trump said—that the U.S. is no longer the world’s master,” Mr. Siphan said on Sunday. “It’s not fair to the facts happening in Cambodia.”

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