(Geneva) - United Nations member states should express concerns about the dramatic deterioration of freedom of expression, assembly, and association in Cambodia at today's review of the nation's human rights record, Human Rights Watch said today.

Cambodia is undergoing its first Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Under the process, the rights record of each member state is reviewed once every four years. In its submission to the Council, Human Rights Watch highlighted political violence, the lack of punishment for senior government officials involved in serious rights abuses, forced evictions and land confiscation, arbitrary detention of drug users, and substandard prison conditions.

"In the past year there's been a sharp regression in Cambodia's respect for basic rights, with major setbacks in press freedom and a harsh crackdown on government critics," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Countries should ask Cambodia why it uses repressive tactics to silence peaceful dissent, while thrusting the poor even further into poverty by condoning illegal land grabbing."

In addition to intimidation, threats, and violence, the government increasingly uses the judicial system to muzzle journalists, human rights defenders, and opposition party members, who increasingly face unwarranted charges of criminal defamation and disinformation, Human Rights Watch said.

In recent months the government has pushed new laws through the National Assembly that further restrict freedom of expression and assembly, with little input from civil society. These include a new penal code and a law restricting demonstrations. A law regulating nongovernmental organizations (NGO) is expected to be taken up by the National Assembly soon, even though civil society groups have not been provided with the draft law for review and comment.

"Given the shrinking political space for human rights and advocacy groups in Cambodia, there's justified alarm that the NGO law will be used to shut down groups critical of the government," Adams said. "Countries at the Human Rights Council should ask the Cambodian government what it fears from a vibrant civil society."

Among Human Rights Watch's recommendations are for the Cambodian government to cease the harassment, arbitrary arrests, and physical attacks on human rights defenders, civil society activists, and opposition party members, and to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of such attacks. The government should also tackle longstanding cases in which those responsible have not been brought to justice, such as the deadly 1997 grenade attack on an opposition rally. And it should resolve more recent rights violations, such as excessive use of force by soldiers and police in forced evictions; physical abuse in detention centers of sex workers, people who use drugs, and homeless people; and the assassinations of labor leaders and journalists.

To address widespread evictions of people from their homes and their land, Human Rights Watch called on the Cambodian government to enact a moratorium on forced evictions until the government has properly adopted and implemented a strict legislative framework on land and housing rights in general, and evictions and resettlement in particular.

Human Rights Watch also highlighted the need for continued UN engagement in Cambodia, especially given the worsening rights situation. Countries should urge the Cambodian government to continue to work with the Cambodia Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to improve prisons, fight impunity, and enhance the protection of human rights.

"Without an impartial judiciary and other independent institutions to provide checks and balances on the government, a close partnership with the UN human rights office is crucial," Adams said. "Cambodia's worsening rights record should come under careful scrutiny, with the UN and its member states insisting that it abide by its international human rights commitments."