Dear Foreign Minister,
We write to you on the eve of your visit to Cambodia to urge you to put human rights at the top of your agenda. Australia has claimed credit for its diplomacy in the 1990s that was supposed to lead to a democratization of Cambodia based on respect for human rights. Sadly, that has not materialized. The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has now been in power for 35 years, while Prime Minister Hun Sen has been in office since 1985. Basic rights such as freedom of expression, assembly and association are under regular attack, while corruption is rampant, severely affecting the enjoyment of basic economic and social rights by a very poor citizenry.
After decades of authoritarian rule, large numbers of Cambodians are increasingly demanding their democratic rights. Protests have continued since the fundamentally flawed elections held in July. The continuing post-election crisis provides Australia with a chance to play a key role in putting the country back on the track of promoting and protecting human rights. Australia should use its voice and influence to make a difference for the people of Cambodia by pressuring the Hun Sen government to agree to early elections after a thorough reform at all levels of the country’s election apparatus and law. We also urge you to call for an end to the general ban on demonstrations, while raising concerns over other restrictions on freedom of expression and association, as well as land grabs, corruption and improper ruling party interference in the judiciary, police, electoral commission, and other key national institutions. This is in line with an Australian Senate motion passed last week which called on the Australian government to “affirm its commitment to protection of human rights and democracy in Cambodia.”
As broadly recognized by Australia’s statements to the UN Human Rights Council Working Group’s Universal Periodic Review of Cambodia’s human rights record on January 28, 2014, among the most pressing human rights issues in Cambodia today are:
• The unfree and unfair character of national elections held in July 2013, which the ruling CPP claims to have narrowly won, but the credibility of which is contested by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and independent Cambodian civil society organizations. As you know, the Senate motion called for Cambodia to accept an international investigation into the conduct and result of the elections.
• Suspension of the constitutional and international legal right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, unlawfully restricted by the Hun Sen government. The CPP-controlled security forces have arbitrarily and violently attempted to impose acceptance of the election results and squelch trade union activism via excessive use of force, resulting in multiple deaths and injuries;
• The lack of independence and impartiality of other key national institutions, such as the judiciary and police, which are controlled by and thereby made to serve the interests of the CPP.
Other pressing human rights issues include:
• Past and ongoing land grabs by government officials and institutions, or associates of Hun Sen. Court judgments and security force operations consistently advance CPP-aligned local and international business interests at the expense of impoverished Cambodians evicted from land to which they have tenure and from their homes protected under the land rights provisions of Cambodia’s constitution and contrary to the United Nations Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-Based Evictions and Displacement.
• Persistent arbitrary arrests and unfair trials of human rights defenders and activists on legally dubious charges.
• Violent dispersal of peaceful civil society gatherings related to elections or other issues.
The CPP, while resisting all challenges to the deeply fraudulent elections, has vowed to conduct “deep reforms” to address at least some of the above human rights problems and is calling on the CNRP to end its election-related boycott of the National Assembly. In this regard, the February 18, 2014, agreement between CPP and CNRP technical working groups on the formation of an electoral reform body with equal representation from both parties and civil society participation is a welcome first step towards the possibility of free and fair elections in Cambodia. But getting there will require fundamental institutional reform of the entire electoral process and particularly the system of electoral management bodies, which the CPP continues to resist.
The CPP has made promises of reform regularly over the past two decades but has failed to keep them. Australia and other foreign governments enjoying close relations with Cambodia should not accept such promises at face value, instead pressing the Cambodian government to take concrete and meaningful steps towards genuine and full respect for human rights in the country. It is important for your government to resist the temptation to engage in empty rhetoric about reform while making statements about the importance of good relations between Australia and Cambodia, as previous Australian governments have done over the past decade – achieving little of substance for the Cambodian people in the process.
In public statements and in meetings with Prime Minister Hun Sen and Deputy Prime Ministers Sar Kheng and Hor Namhong, we urge you to press the Cambodian government to commit to and urgently begin implementation of real reforms, including those recommended by Cambodian civil society.
By raising such issues, Australia will add its voice to those of the many courageous Cambodians working for peaceful change.
CC. Alison Burrows, Australian Ambassador to Cambodia