(New York) – Cambodia’s draft election laws violate basic human rights and democratic norms and should be substantially revised before being presented to the National Assembly for a vote, Human Rights Watch said today. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) proposed rights-violating provisions on the staging of elections and the National Election Committee (NEC), which were agreed to by the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). The National Assembly is scheduled to begin discussion of the bills on March 19, 2015. 

“Laws like these limiting freedom of expression, association, and assembly will make it likely that any future Cambodian election is undemocratic,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “It’s hardly surprising that the CPP proposed these provisions, but the CNRP shares the blame for agreeing to criminalize and censor speech and limit the public’s right to hold campaign rallies.”

The draft laws threaten human rights and will restrict the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly during election campaigns by:

  • Criminalizing activists through vague legal provisions prohibiting “insults”;
  • Shortening the campaign and procession periods;
  • Allowing security force members to act in a partisan and intimidating manner;
  • Allowing the disqualification of parties on trivial, trumped-up, or misrepresented grounds, including by punishing entire parties for offenses by individual members;
  • Preventing parties from using political boycotts to protest election fraud and other irregularities;
  • Allowing political control of NEC operations through back-door administrative means; and
  • Using the pretext of having dual citizenship to exclude a particular person from committee membership.

The proposed laws were drafted without public consultation by the two parties rather than through transparent discussions with the participation of civil society and the general public.

Article 84 of the draft election law uses vague language to limit the role of nongovernmental organizations in election monitoring and other election-related activities by criminalizing undefined “insults,” including standard political speech. The article could also easily be interpreted to determine that Cambodian election monitoring groups violate the requirement of neutrality by criticizing the actions of the CPP, army, police, gendarmerie, courts, or other CPP-controlled institutions that act in a biased manner or commit election-related or other violations.

“Given the CPP’s long history of using the courts to target critics, this law could be used against organizations that conduct a poll that says the opposition is leading, criticize the CPP’s election activities in the media, or make public criticism of the government,” said Adams. “Article 84 needs to be removed or the new election law will be a tool for repression instead of democracy.”

The draft law also limits the number of public processions during the 21-day campaign period to four per political party. This requirement is an unreasonable limitation on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.

“Campaign marches are one of the most basic elements of a democratic election,” Adams said. “If the two largest parties want to limit their marches, that’s their choice, but they shouldn’t be able to restrict the free speech rights of other parties and their members.”

The draft laws fail to establish a genuinely independent NEC capable of preventing election fraud and otherwise ensuring free and fair elections. The CPP has stated that it should be able to control the appointment process of NEC members through its majority in the standing committee of the National Assembly, that its appointee should be the chair of the NEC, and that the secretary-general of the NEC should remain a CPP appointee. The draft NEC law empowers the government to adopt regulations (sub-decrees) for the conduct of elections, thereby giving it the ability to go around NEC authority when necessary.

The CNRP has stated that it expects the proposed laws to neutralize the political control of the CPP over the electoral machinery so that future elections will be free and fair. It has claimed that the appointment of one independent NEC member will block the NEC from acting in a partisan manner in favor of the CPP. However, these laws provide no mechanism to ensure the appointment of an independent person to the NEC. The CNRP said that under a new NEC, voter rolls will no longer be susceptible to widespread fraud because of the use of biometrics, but this is not established in the law.

“Nothing in the draft laws will prevent the CPP from manipulating the electoral machinery in the next election any less than during the fundamentally flawed 2013 election,” Adams said. “The CNRP claims to be committed to internationally recognized human rights standards, yet it is backing laws that allow the ruling party to continue to disenfranchise large numbers of voters, allow fake votes, and distort election results.”