Skip to main content

Cambodia: Fair Elections Not Possible

In a new report issued today, Human Rights Watch concludes that the present political environment in Cambodia, in which opposition parties are not able to operate freely and safely, is in no way conducive to the holding of free, fair, and credible elections scheduled for July 26, 1998.

The report was issued on the eve of a June 20 meeting in Bangkok, Thailand of the grouping of countries known as the Friends of Cambodia.

"The primary obstacle is neither logistical nor technical, but the rather the determination of the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) to control the electoral process and restrict basic freedoms," said Sidney Jones, executive director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "The most important obstacle to fair elections remains the utter lack of accountability of Cambodian authorities and the failure to investigate or prosecute perpetrators of abuse. With only six weeks left before the scheduled polling, there is no chance that a deeply flawed and rushed electoral process will help Cambodia either establish democracy or bring an end to disruptive military activities."

Human Rights Watch recommends postponement of elections until the conditions conducive to a free and fair poll are in place. However, recognizing that the international and domestic momentum to hold elections in July is strong and indeed, may be impossible to halt, Human Rights Watch recommends concrete steps that donor nations and the Cambodian government can take to minimize yet further human rights abuses and even greater intimidation of Cambodian citizens in exercising their right to elect a government.

During a research mission to Cambodia from February to April 1998, Human Rights Watch found the following:

  • Political violence in Phnom Penh and the countryside has continued since the coup of July 1997. The violence -- in conjunction with the government's failure to investigate and prosecute any perpetrators -- has left its mark. Opposition members know that to be politically active is to court danger or even death. The violence has caused a widespread climate of fear, stifled dissent, and intimidated voters.
  • Local-level opposition political activists have been effectively blocked by the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) of Second Prime Minister Hun Sen from rebuilding their party structures and taking their message to the countryside. National and local-level institutions mandated by an election law passed in October 1997 to organize and oversee the elections are dominated by the CPP.
  • The CPP has launched an aggressive nationwide campaign to pressure voters into signing up with the party. In addition to monitoring opposition party members, it is following the activities of groups it considers politically suspect, such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), students and academics, trade union members, as well as political refugees who have returned to Cambodia from Thai refugee camps.
  • Opposition political parties' lack of equal access to the broadcast media has not been rectified by media regulations issued for the election campaign period which starts June 25.
  • International and local observer groups have yet to make much of a presence in monitoring the electoral process. As of mid-June -- halfway through the critical period of voter registration --only nineteen international observers were on the ground. Only 300 international monitors have been committed to observe the process, with most of them arriving in the last weeks of the campaign. They will be expected to cover more than 11,000 polling stations and 1,600 counting centers.
  • A functioning Constitutional Council, the country's highest appeals body, which is mandated to adjudicate electoral disputes and ultimately to rule on the legitimacy of the election itself, has yet to meet more than once. Several members of the council have boycotted the meetings, charging that the body, which is dominated by CPP members, was set up in an illegal and unconstitutional manner.

The return of Prince Norodom Ranariddh to Cambodia on March 30, 1998, after nine months in self-exile, did not significantly affect the prospects either for a free and fair election or for a lasting cease-fire between the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) and resistance forces loyal to Ranariddh, who was ousted as First Prime Minister by Second Prime Minister Hun Sen in a July 1997 coup. As of mid-June, truce talks between the two forces were stalled.

Human Rights Watch cautions, however, that postponement alone will achieve little unless the international community speaks with one voice in setting forth the conditions that must be met to guarantee a fair election and backs that up with significant economic and diplomatic pressure. The group believes that fair elections and an end to impunity for human rights offenders are linked: opposition parties will only be free to organize and campaign when it is clear that acts of political violence will be punished. Two steps that should be taken to help ensure an end to impunity would be the establishment of a genuinely independent commission of inquiry into the killings that occurred during and after the July 1997 coup and prosecution of offenders. It would also be critical to repeal Article 51 of the Civil Servants Act, which provides that civil servants cannot be arrested or prosecuted for any crime unless their governmental department agrees in advance.

If the momentum toward meeting the July date cannot be halted, we believe the Friends of Cambodia -- many of whom were instrumental in the peace process that led to Cambodia's 1993 U.N.-organized elections -- have a particular responsibility to try and ensure the safety of the voters and reduce the likelihood that the voting will be manipulated, without at the same time lending legitimacy to the process by providing "technical assistance" to the Cambodian government.

The most important step the Friends of Cambodia could take at this stage is to ensure that as many qualified observers and monitors arrive in the country as soon as possible, to act as a deterrent to political violence and intimidation of voters and candidates in the weeks that remain, to monitor the actual polling and vote-counting and protect the secrecy of the ballot, and to monitor the transition of power to the victors in the weeks following the election. If donor resources are to go anywhere, it should be to this monitoring effort.

In addition, if elections go forward, the donors should also insist on a minimum set of conditions that are entirely within the Cambodian government's power to meet, even at this late date. The government should be asked to:

  • Take immediate and concrete steps to assure the electorate that how they or their village vote will not be detected or traced back to them or used against them. The best way to do this would be by moving the location of the ballot count from commune to provincial level and providing extra security and additional international monitors to accompany the ballot boxes during transport.
  • Revise media regulations established for the electoral campaign period to enable immediate and full access of all parties to government-owned or -controlled media. Political parties should be given the right of ownership of private media and, in accordance with the Cambodian constitution, not be censored in their news coverage or political programming.
  • Make public statements to underscore the secrecy of the ballot, explicitly stating that voters should vote their consciences and are in no way beholden to any pre-poll pledges that they may have made to vote for any party. Such statements are likely to ring hollow, however, unless a massive international monitoring presence is in place.
  • Impose sanctions from the election law on parties that coerce or pressure villagers to join or pledge to vote for them, although how free villagers will feel to raise complaints about coercion in the current climate is a real question.
    Postpone the launching of the Constitutional Council until after the elections. Given that it is too late for the Constitutional Council to resolve election disputes that have already taken place, or to settle questions about the legitimacy of the council itself, a Constitutional Council should not be rushed into place at this late date nor attempt to play a role in verifying the final election results.

Meeting the above conditions will not necessarily guarantee a fair election, but it might reduce the possibility of abuse and intimidation. It will then be the responsibility of the Friends of Cambodia to begin work immediately on a program that will at least try to ensure the Cambodia moves in a direction that will make future elections more fair. To do this, the Friends should:

  • Continue to exert pressure on the Cambodian government to prosecute clear cases of extrajudicial executions that took place during and since the 1997 coup. As requested by Human Rights Watch previously, the United States should publicly and promptly release information obtained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) concerning the March 30, 1997 grenade attack on the peaceful gathering organized by opposition politician Sam Rainsy in Phnom Penh.
  • Keep Cambodia's membership in ASEAN on hold and continue to hold vacant Cambodia's seat at the U.N. until genuinely free and fair elections have taken place.
  • Refrain from resuming full-scale government aid -- both bilateral and multilateral, and via international financial institutions -- until after elections, and then only if the election is judged by international monitors to be fair and any transfer of power is both peaceful and lawful. In the absence of free and fair elections this July, any humanitarian aid given directly to government agencies should be conditioned on the degree to which the government takes steps to prosecute perpetrators of political violence and ends the climate of impunity. We are not advocating any restrictions on aid channeled through NGOs or through international humanitarian or development agencies.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country