Deterioration of Human Rights in Cambodia

Vol. 8, No. 11 (C), December 1996



Even as international attention focuses on the split in the Khmer Rouge organization and the hopes for peace that it has engendered, the human rights situation in Cambodia remains precarious and has in many respects steadily worsened over the course of 1996. Disturbing trends include a rise in political violence, the continued repression of the press, and impunity for abuses committed by government officials and other powerful figures. Indeed, an amnesty given to former Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Sary in September marks only the latest incident in a history of impunity for human rights abusers in Cambodia since the United Nations-sponsored peace settlement.

It has been over three years since the United Nations-sponsored elections produced the current government. Cambodians now face the task of planning the next round of elections, both local elections in 1997 and national elections in 1998, amid growing concerns that the elections may be delayed. Meanwhile, the deterioration in the human rights situation during the past year, raises questions about the extent to which democracy and the rule of law have been established in Cambodia and whether free and fair elections are possible in the current political climate. In 1996, one journalist was shot and killed while two were arrested on the basis of their writings, one of them as recently as August 23, 1996. While the latter two were later released under royal pardons, the risks of engaging in free speech have been made clear. In addition, extrajudicial executions and torture during interrogations continue to take place, especially in areas where the Khmer Rouge is active. The perpetrators of these and other abuses continue to carry out their actions with impunity, as the Royal Government of Cambodia makes frequent use of a law that largely shields government employees from prosecution for crimes.

There are, to be sure, some positive developments. Human rights training for judges and police continues, and some observers have suggested that there have been signs of improvement in the independence and performance of the judiciary. In addition, the National Assembly’s Commission on Human Rights and the Reception of Complaints received funding in early 1996 from the United Nations Development Programme to hire ten human rights assistants. These assistants completed several weeks of training in mid-June and, shortly thereafter, began investigating a variety of abuses, including trafficking of children, labor abuses and extrajudicial executions. Despite some initial success, the ability of the commission to remedy serious human rights abuses remains to be seen. By mid-1996, the consensus among local and international human rights workers in Cambodia was that the human rights climate was worse than it had been at any time since 1993.

While the rift among the Khmer Rouge may signal the beginning of the end of Cambodia’s long-running civil war, the human rights situation in Cambodia is not likely to improve in the near future unless the Cambodian government demonstrates greater tolerance for opposition political viewpoints and takes steps to ensure accountability for abuses, and unless the international community comes to expect and demand such behavior.

This report is based on a mission to Cambodia conducted by a Human Rights Watch/Asia researcher in May and June 1996. Our researcher interviewed government officials, human rights workers, nongovernmental organization staff, and victims and their family members in order to document the abuses addressed in this report.



Human Rights Watch/Asia urges the Royal Cambodian Government to:

repeal Article 51 of the Law on Co-Statute for the Civil Servants of the Kingdom of Cambodia, the law that de facto grants impunity to government officials accused of human rights violations.

remove from the draft Common Military Statute any provisions that would require courts to seek permission from the Ministry of Defence before they can prosecute soldiers for common crimes.

vigorously investigate human rights abuses and prosecute, according to Cambodian and international law, those who are found guilty of human rights abuses. The government must ensure the independence of judges and lawyers from political influence and make legal representation available to all defendants.

cease immediately the imposition of prison terms for journalists or other forms of reprisals for reporting or commentary that reflects negatively on government agencies, policies or officials. While Human Rights Watch/Asia welcomes the ultimate release of journalists Chan Rottana and Hen Vipheak under pardons from King Sihanouk, it condemns their conviction and imprisonment on the basis of peacefully expressed opinions, actions taken in violation of the Cambodian constitution and Cambodia’s obligations under international law.

cease immediately the use of extrajudicial executions to “punish” those accused of undertaking activities on behalf of the Khmer Rouge.

cease immediately the use of torture to elicit information or to force confessions from detainees and prisoners. Torture is especially common during interrogation of those accused of undertaking activities on behalf of the Khmer Rouge.

ensure that any proposed anti-drug law be in full compliance with the protections of civil liberties set forth in Cambodian law and international law.

protect ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia from ethnically motivated violence. The government must make it clear to the Cambodian public that such ethnically motivated violence will be punished according to law.

Human Rights Watch/Asia urges the international community, especially international donors who are considering further budgetary support and assistance for the Cambodian government, to:

insist that the government hold its officials, civilian and military, accountable for gross violations of human rights. Such accountability, together with factors such as transparency of government processes, is an indicator of good governance and commitment to the rule of law.

cease pressuring the Cambodian government to pass anti-drug laws that are likely to foster human rights abuses. The international community should encourage instead the careful drafting of any anti-drug law to ensure full compliance of all its provisions with the protections of civil liberties set forth in Cambodian law and international law.

the government of Japan to call on the Cambodian government to ensure greater protection of human rights and accountability for rights violations. As the leading donor nation (including pledges of US$91 million in assistance to Cambodia at this year’s donors’ meeting) and as a prominent proponent of peace and development in Cambodia since the 1991 peace agreements, Japan can play an important role in pressing for human rights improvements.

Human Rights Watch/Asia also urges the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Hanoi and Phnom Penh to continue efforts to obtain hard information from the Cambodian government and the Vietnamese government about the whereabouts, legal status, and well-being of Ly Thara, Ly Chandara, and Nguyen Phong Seun, who were seized in Phnom Penh and delivered to Vietnamese authorities on May 9, 1996. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees should continue pursuing information on these cases on the grounds that the three men may have been refugees sur place, whose expulsion to Vietnam would constitute refoulement.




Human Rights Watch      December 1996      Vol. 8, No. 11 (C)

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