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Supporters of Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, shout slogans in front of Phnom Penh Municipal Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on Saturday, August 1, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Heng Sinith

(Bangkok, January 13, 2021) – The Cambodian government passed draconian laws and arbitrarily detained over 60 activists, journalists, and political opposition members in the past year, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021. The authorities continued to prohibit Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy, leaders of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), from participating in political activity.

“Prime Minister Hun Sen took advantage of the global pandemic to step up his repression of critics and activists and adopt more draconian laws,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Donors, foreign governments, and the United Nations offered little more than pro forma criticisms, while watching the country slip deeper into dictatorship.”

In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy, in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort.

Cambodian authorities filed unsubstantiated charges of incitement, conspiracy, and other offenses to enforce its crackdown. Activists, union leaders, online critics, and others faced escalating intimidation, threats, and arbitrary arrests. Over 30 opposition activists were detained as of November 2020, while between July and September at least 14 youth and environmental activists were charged with baseless incitement charges for peaceful protest activities.

Sokha, the CNRP president, continued to face bogus treason charges, brought in 2017. After trial hearings began in January, the court, lacking evidence, postponed the trial in March indefinitely to 2021. In October, Kem Sokha’s lawyers asked for the trial to resume.

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) accelerated efforts to pass repressive laws. In April, the government adopted a state of emergency law that grants the prime minister and others unfettered authority to surveil private telecommunications, and to ban the dissemination of information, while generally restricting the rights to peaceful assembly and association.

In June, the government drafted a public order law that seeks to police ordinary actions and prohibits a vast array of public and private behavior. The government also drafted a National Internet Gateway regulation that would empower the government to block or disconnect network connections that it claims affects social order. It pushed ahead with a cybercrime bill that threatens the rights to freedom of expression, privacy and information. The laws appear aimed at further closing down cyberspace for Cambodians to express their opinions, Human Rights Watch said.  

In August, following Hun Sen’s failure to address violations of civil and political rights, including land and labor rights, that the European Union identified as part of its “Everything But Arms” trade preference program, the European Commission partially withdrew Cambodia’s preferential access to the EU market. 

“The Covid-19 pandemic, which caused hundreds of thousands of Cambodians to lose their jobs and livelihoods, was compounded by a deepening human rights crisis that foreign governments, UN agencies, and donors did little to address,” Robertson said. “In 2021 they should set clear, strict benchmarks for the Cambodian government to ensure compliance with its international legal obligations, and set out the consequences for failure.”

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