The U.N.’s human rights envoy to Cambodia condemned the government’s recent violent rhetoric, court action against politicians and attacks against NGOs that have ramped up ahead of a key national election next year, arguing that the country appeared to be “approaching a precipice.”
In the closing statement of her fourth visit to the country as the U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia, Rhona Smith urged the government to ensure open debate and criticized the current environment of “intimidation and fear.”
“The general situation in the country remains tense. Cambodia appears to be approaching a precipice,” she said during her remarks in Phnom Penh on Friday at the end of the 10-day mission.
Ms. Smith blasted the threats of violence made recently by government ministers and military officials, in an apparent nod to Prime Minister Hun Sen saying in June that he would eliminate 100 to 200 opponents “to protect the peace for millions of people.” Defense Minister Tea Banh also vowed in May that if anyone disputed election results, he would “smash their teeth.”
“Such comments should not be made by government ministers, even in private,” Ms. Smith said.
“It is my hope that moving forward, Cambodia will retreat from the precipice with no more threats of violence, quelling insurrections or war, or racial inflammatory statements,” she added. “So many have worked tirelessly in government and outwith to ensure the peaceful transition of Cambodia from conflict and genocide to democracy, in accordance with the Constitution on which modern Cambodia is based. This path must be continued. It is what all Cambodians deserve.”
Ms. Smith added that the government was using a broadening range of laws to “restrict criticism” and “quell political debate.”
“[H]olding the Government to account is neither contrary to state sovereignty nor a threat to public order or national security,” she said.
Ms. Smith also said opposition politicians and grassroots activists such as Boeng Kak land activist Tep Vanny—who has been imprisoned in a case widely considered politically motivated—were “still being excessively targeted” by the country’s courts.
“Cambodia should be a vibrant pluralist democracy where all reasonable debate and opinion are encouraged, not punished, and productive political discussions pave the way for full and free elections,” she added.
July’s election will be the first national election since 2013, when a united opposition pushed the ruling CPP to the brink of defeat in a vote widely criticized for alleged irregularities. The opposition CNRP hopes it can break Mr. Hun Sen’s decadeslong grip on power next year.
Keo Remy, head of the government’s Cambodian Human Rights Committee, could not be reached for comment. But Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan dismissed Ms. Smith’s remarks as unhelpful.
“She’s not a judge. She’s not a policeman. She doesn’t have the right to tell the prime minister to do this or do that—to tell the government to,” he said. “Does she have experience to manage another country? No. She’s just a very simple professor…. We don’t need her.”
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, however, said Ms. Smith’s assessment was an “accurate reflection” of the buildup of tension in Cambodia.
“Diplomats in Phnom Penh need to be talking now with their capitals about how to use next month’s Human Rights Council (HRC) resolution on Cambodia to stop the government’s onslaught against NGO and community rights defenders, opposition party activists, and reporters who dare challenge the ruling CPP’s preferred narratives.”
Sebastian Strangio, author of “Hun Sen’s Cambodia,” added in an email that the situation indeed appeared to be worsening.
“On the whole I agree with Prof. Smith’s assessment of the political situation: the government certainly seems to be doing more than in previous years to restrict opposition forces by initiating bogus legal actions and hauling people into prison.”
“To argue that this could compromise the integrity of next year’s election, of course, is simply to state the obvious: CPP victory next year is precisely the reason for the crackdown,” he said.
Mr. Strangio said China’s rising influence had diminished the weight of Western donors’ criticisms, in what he called “an end to the UNTAC era,” referring to the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia, which organized elections in 1993.
“For this reason, Prof. Smith’s words are unlikely to have much effect on the Cambodian government,” he said.
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