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Submission to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights for Cambodia

68th pre-session

This submission relates to the review of Cambodia under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It focuses on the right and access to education, the right to an adequate standard of living, and the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.

Lack of Adequate Standard of Living for Over-indebted Borrowers (article 11)

The Covid-19 pandemic sparked an economic crisis in Cambodia, in which hundreds of thousands of people were suspended from work with little or no pay, or laid off outright. Many Cambodians have taken out micro-loans, often using land titles as collateral, but without jobs or income, they are unable to repay the loans.

The Cambodian government and micro-loan providers has done little to respond to this micro-loan debt crisis, leaving hundreds of thousands of borrowers facing serious financial burdens without debt relief or loan restructuring that could alleviate that burden. The government’s failure to respond to this crisis has violated borrowers’ rights to an adequate standard of living, notably access to adequate housing.[1] A lack of oversight and enforceable debt relief, exacerbated by micro-loan providers' unethical lending practices that intend to push borrowers into insurmountable debt, resulted in cases of coerced land sales by indebted borrowers. Rather than heeding desperate appeals by poor communities urging the government to suspend micro-loan debt collection, the authorities arrested peaceful protesters and threatened borrowers with confiscation of property if they acted on exiled opposition leaders’ calls to refuse to repay loans.[2]

Suggested questions

  • What steps has the government taken to ensure that borrowers are protected from unethical lending practices by micro-loan providers and to eradicate coerced land sales?
  • What oversight and accountability measures has the government taken to ensure that all borrowers affected by the Covid-19 economic crisis will be granted debt relief or loan restructuring as well as will be protected from coerced land sales?  

Suggested recommendations

  • Ensure that micro-loan providers will suspend all loan repayments as well as interest accrual on loans for borrowers affected by the Covid-19 economic crisis and who fear seizure of their collateralized land titles.
  • Ensure that micro-loan providers do not seize collateralized land titles of indebted borrowers who are unable to pay off their loans due to financial burden linked to the pandemic.
  • Ensure that micro-loan providers stop using land and housing titles as collateral for micro-loans as this further causes tenure insecurity in Cambodia.

Shackling of People with Psychosocial Disabilities (articles 11 and 12)

People with real or perceived psychosocial disabilities, or mental health conditions, are sometimes shackled—chained or locked in confined spaces—due to lack of adequate and accessible community-based services, as well as stigma and discrimination.[3] Shackling often occurs in homes because there are no services available in the community and families who struggle to cope with the demands of caring for a relative with a psychosocial disability may feel they have no choice but to shackle them.[4]

In the absence of mental health services, people with psychosocial disabilities can also be arbitrarily detained and chained in drug detention centers or prisons. Human Rights Watch research in 2013 in Cambodia found that people with real or perceived psychosocial disabilities were locked up and often chained in drug detention centers, or in sporadic crackdowns to “clean the streets” ahead of high-profile international meetings or visits by foreign dignitaries.[5]

In June 2020, the Ministry of Interior proposed a draft Public Order Law that would further entrench discrimination against people with psychosocial disabilities as well as against other at-risk groups in society and add to existing deep concerns of the continuing practice of shackling in Cambodia. The current draft of the bill provides the authorities with unfettered powers to arbitrarily strip people with mental health conditions of their civil liberties.[6] Article 25, among other problematic provisions, states that a “caregiver or a guardian of a person with a mental disorder shall not allow that person to walk freely in public places.” In a country where people with psychosocial disabilities are stigmatized and subjected to abuse, such broad discretion given to authorities to restrict the freedoms of movement and liberties of a person with mental health conditions will facilitate further abuse and entrenchment of the problem.[7]

Suggested questions

  • What steps has the government taken to eliminate the practice of shackling of people with psychosocial disabilities?
  • What steps has the government taken to develop adequate, quality, and voluntary community-based support mental health services?
  • Is there official data on the number of people who are or have been subjected to shackling in Cambodia?

Suggested Recommendations 

  • Ban shackling in law and in practice.
  • Discard the draft Public Order Law as it restricts Cambodians’ right to free expression and peaceful assembly and incorporates provisions that violate the rights of women and persons with actual or perceived mental or developmental disabilities.
  • Develop a time-bound plan to shift progressively to voluntary community-based mental health, support, and independent living services.
  • Conduct public information campaigns to raise awareness about mental health conditions and the rights of people with disabilities, especially among alternative mental health service providers and the broader community, in partnership with people with lived experiences of mental health conditions, faith leaders, and media.

Protection of Education from Attack (article 13)

As of January 2021, Cambodia has 776 troops deployed to UN peacekeeping missions in the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Lebanon, and Mali. Attacks on students and schools, and the military use of schools have been documented in all three of these countries.[8] According to Cambodia’s “2006 Defense White Paper,” Cambodia’s rationale for providing UN peacekeepers – to build “prestige in the international arena” for the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces[9]  – should be reflected in its commitment to promote and protect international human rights law and international humanitarian law.

Peacekeeping troops are required to comply with the UN Department of Peace Operations “UN Infantry Battalion Manual” (2012), which includes the provision that “schools shall not be used by the military in their operations.”[10] Moreover, the 2017 Child Protection Policy of the UN Department of Peace Operations, Department of Field Support, and Department of Political Affairs notes: “United Nations peace operations should refrain from all actions that impede children's access to education, including the use of school premises. This applies particularly to uniformed personnel. Furthermore … United Nations peace operations personnel shall at no time and for no amount of time use schools for military purposes.”[11]

The Safe Schools Declaration is an inter-governmental political commitment that provides countries the opportunity to express political support for the protection of students, teachers, and schools during times of armed conflict[12]; the importance of the continuation of education during armed conflict; and the implementation of the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict.[13] As of January 2021, 106 countries have endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration. Cambodia has yet to endorse this important declaration.[14]

Suggested Questions

  • Are protections for schools from military use included in the pre-deployment training provided to Cambodian troops participating in peacekeeping missions?
  • Do any Cambodian laws, policies, or trainings provide explicit protection for schools and universities from military use during armed conflict?

Suggested Recommendations

  • Endorse and implement the Safe Schools Declaration.

Access to Education during Covid-19 Pandemic (article 13)

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on education in Cambodia. According to UNESCO data, schools were closed due to the pandemic on March 16, 2020, partially reopened in September, fully opened for one week in November, and then were on academic break until 2021.[15] Under Cambodian domestic law, citizens are guaranteed only nine years of free education, and there is no legal provision for compulsory education.[16] In June and July 2020, Human Rights Watch interviewed parents of school children about the effects of school closures in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. They expressed serious concerns over schools having a lack of contact with students, and significant learning loss. Students from low-income families and rural communities were disproportionately affected.

In August, an ethnic Cham mother said of her two boys, “Right now, they don’t receive any education.” She explained, “I was not contacted by the school and I received no information about assignments to be completed by my sons.” In July, she organized a private tutor on Cambodian Islam for her two school-aged sons at a neighbor’s house. She pays 400 riel (US$0.10) for two to three hours per day. She supports her sons by selling breakfast in front of her house. “I cannot read or write, and I am very poor. I have always wanted a better life for my children… All I want is that my sons return to school… They always had good grades before the school closed. They deserve an education like all other kids.”[17]

The parent of a 10-year-old boy from the Battambang province said his son received no instruction from the school, except for when a teacher visited them to say what work he should be doing. He said his son is “definitely not making the same sort of progress in his studies as he was back in school. He used to learn at school, now I feel he does not learn anything.”[18]

A parent of an 11-year-old from Banteay Meanchey province said their son started distance online learning. However, “The teacher never followed up to check which students had done their homework and which had not.”[19]

A mother in a village in Banteay Meanchey province, who occasionally sells clothes in the market, said that around two months after her 11-year-old son’s school closed, his teacher came to their house. The mother had given her son her old smartphone, and the teacher asked for it. “On my son’s phone, the teacher connected him to a Facebook messenger group with his classmates. On my phone, the teacher added me to a Facebook messenger group with other parents in my son’s class. The teacher asked for 5,000 Cambodian riel [US$1.25].” She said she also spends about $12 a month for phone credit, as the family does not have WiFi at home.[20] (By comparison, a parent in Cambodia’s capital said he also pays about $12 a month, but in the city this price provides unlimited internet access.[21] )

In a village in Siem Reap province, a grandmother who is the primary caregiver for her 10-year-old granddaughter told Human Rights Watch: “Before Covid-19, my granddaughter went to school every morning and afternoon.” But now “early in the morning, my granddaughter helps me collect bottles and other waste which we then sell. She also helps me sell soft drinks. Sometimes she also accompanies me to buy groceries.” The grandmother said she is worried that her granddaughter already started her studies later than other children, at age 8, and is now falling even further behind in her education. “She is now 10 and has only finished grade 2.”[22]

A single parent of six children in Kampong Cham province said, “I feel bad for my sons, that they are born into a poor family… No one contacted me from my sons’ school. I also don’t have a smartphone to receive messages or a television to receive news about the coronavirus situation… I am poor and don’t have the money for this.”[23]

“At school my son had five subjects,” said a mother in a rural area. But during distance learning her son’s teacher provided instruction only for mathematics and Khmer. “My son does not have enough classes to receive a proper education.”[24] Elsewhere, a father said that his 10-year-old son only received directions to continue his Khmer studies. “He does not learn any other subjects.”[25]

Suggested Questions

  • How does the government plan to remedy learning time lost by children due to Covid-19 related school closures, in particular for students from low-income, marginalized, rural, and particularly vulnerable families?

Suggested Recommendations

  • Provide additional years of free education beyond the nine years guaranteed by law to make up for the educational opportunities lost due to the Covid-pandemic.
  • Make education compulsory and free for all children, at least through the end of lower-secondary school.
  • When schools close, track using gender-disaggregated data the numbers of children affected by school closures; similarly, track the number and gender of children returning when schools reopen, and develop strategies to prevent disparities in the number of children returning to school.
  • Establish over-inclusive “back to school” efforts, directed not just at children who were in school prior to the pandemic, but also at children who were excluded from education due to other causes prior to the pandemic.
  • Provide financial support to offset school-related expenses for children whose families suffered economic hardship due to the pandemic and would not be able to return to school otherwise.
  • Provide remedial education for children who were unable to follow distance education and for children who were out of school due to other causes prior to the pandemic. Focus especially on children most excluded or at risk: including children with disabilities, children living in poverty, children who work, migrant children, and children in rural areas.
  • Adopt measures to provide affordable, reliable and accessible internet service, as well as smart devices for all students, recognizing that digital literacy and access to the internet are increasingly indispensable for children to realize their right to education.
  • Ensure that public education systems are adequately resourced, both so they can adequately respond to existing and emerging needs, and to resource their vision for inclusive education.
 

[1] Human Rights Watch, Cambodia: Micro-Loan Borrowers Face Covid-19 Crisis - Suspend Debt Collection, Stop Coerced Land Sales, July 14, 2020,

https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/07/14/cambodia-micro-loan-borrowers-face-covid-19-crisis.

[2] Fresh News, PM Hun Sen Encourages and Supports Banks to Confiscate Properties of Debtors Who Follow the Appeals of the Opposition, June 24, 2020, http://m.en.freshnewsasia.com/index.php/en/localnews/18606-2020-06-24-06-55-18.html.

[3] Human Rights Watch, Living in Chains: Shackling of People with Psychosocial Disabilities Worldwide, October 2020, https://www.hrw.org/report/2020/10/06/living-chains/shackling-people-psychosocial-disabilities-worldwide; Leonie Kijewski, "Shackled and locked up, Cambodia’s mentally ill languish in limbo," The Washington Post, February 15, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/shackled-and-locked-up-cambodias-mentally-ill-languish-in-limbo/2020/02/14/a8c8bfbe-2df6-11ea-bffe-020c88b3f120_story.html (accessed January 7, 2021); Mech Dara and Erin Hanley, “Chained up, out of sight: Desperate families often keep mentally ill relatives in squalid conditions,” The Phom Pen Post, March 10, 2017, https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national-post-depth/chained-out-sight-desperate-families-often-keep-mentally-ill-relatives-squalid (accessed January 7, 2021).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Human Rights Watch, They Treat Us Like Animals: Mistreatment of Drug Users and "Undesirables" in Cambodia’s Drug Detention Centers, December 2013, https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/cambodia1213_ForUpload_1.pdf, p.3.

[6] “Civil Society Organizations Call for the Draft Law on Public Order to be Immediately Discarded,” joint statement, August 13, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/08/13/civil-society-organizations-call-draft-law-public-order-be-immediately-discarded.

[7] Human Rights Watch, Living in Chains.

[8] Education Under Attack: 2020, The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, 2020, https://eua2020.protectingeducation.org/

[10] United Nations Infantry Battalion Manual, 2012, section 2.13, “Schools shall not be used by the military in their operations.”

[11] UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Department of Field Support and Department of Political Affairs, “Child Protection in UN Peace Operations (Policy),” June 2017.

[12] Safe Schools Declaration, May 28, 2015, https://www.regjeringen.no/globalassets/departementene/ud/vedlegg/utvikling/safe_schools_declaration.pdf (accessed November 6, 2018).

[13] Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict, March 18, 2014, http://protectingeducation.org/sites/default/files/documents/guidelines_en.pdf (accessed November 6, 2018).

[14] “Safe School Declaration Endorsements,” Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, accessed June 29, 2019, http://www.protectingeducation.org/guidelines/support

[15] UNESCO data, available https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse.

[16] Education Law, 2007.

[17] Human Rights Watch interview with mother, Ankor Ban commune, Kang Meas district, Kampong Cham Province, Cambodia, August 2, 2020.

[18] Human Rights Watch interview with parent, Battambang province, Cambodia, Aug 2, 2020.

[19] Human Rights Watch interview with parent, Banteay Meanchey province, Cambodia, July 29, 2020.

[20] Human Rights Watch interview with mother, Keap, Teok Thla, Banteay Meanchey province, Cambodia, July 29, 2020.

[21] Human Rights Watch interview with father, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, August 1, 2020.

[22] Human Rights Watch interview with grandmother primary caregiver, Ta Vieng village, Siem Reap province, Cambodia, August 3, 2020.

[23] Human Rights Watch interview with parent, Kampong Cham province, Cambodia, Aug 2, 2020.

[24] Human Rights Watch interview with mother, Keap, Teok Thla, Banteay Meanchey province, Cambodia, July 29, 2020.

[25] Human Rights Watch interview with father, Koh Snay village, Battambang province, Cambodia, August 2, 2020.

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