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Naga World casino workers hold posters and banners during a rally in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, January 4, 2022. © 2022 AP Photo/Heng Sinith

(Jakarta) – Cambodia’s longtime prime minister, Hun Sen, used ostensible public health measures to further clamp down on the dwindling civic freedoms in the country in 2022, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2023. The authorities targeted dozens of union leaders, activists, and opposition politicians and members for harassment, arbitrary arrest, and prosecution.

“Prime Minister Hun Sen left no stone unturned in his efforts to restrict rights and ensure total political control heading into the mid-2023 national elections,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Labor leaders, environmental and land rights activists, and human rights defenders have borne the brunt of this crackdown, which could get worse as elections get nearer.”

In the 712-page World Report 2023, its 33rd edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in close to 100 countries. In her introductory essay, acting Executive Director Tirana Hassan says that in a world in which power has shifted, it is no longer possible to rely on a small group of mostly Global North governments to defend human rights. The world’s mobilization around Russia’s war in Ukraine reminds us of the extraordinary potential when governments realize their human rights obligations on a global scale. The responsibility is on individual countries, big and small, to apply a human rights framework to their policies, and then work together to protect and promote human rights.

Cambodian authorities used the 2021 Law on Measures to Prevent the Spread of Covid-19 and other Serious, Dangerous and Contagious Diseases to interfere with and shut down peaceful labor strikes. In February, during the strike by the Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld (LRSU), uniformed police and plainclothes officers forced strikers onto city buses and transported them to remote, sub-standard quarantine centers for Covid-19 testing.

The LRSU union leader, Chhim Sithar, was held in pretrial detention for 74 days on fabricated charges between January and March. In November, the authorities rearrested Sithar as she was returning from a global trade union congress in Australia. Officials at the airport told her she had violated bail conditions that neither she nor her lawyer had been informed about.

Cambodian authorities eroded what remains of democratic freedoms in the country by harassing, threatening, and prosecuting opposition politicians and activists, notably local leaders and members of the opposition Candlelight Party on spurious criminal changes.

Prosecutors continued politically motivated mass trials of more than 100 people connected with the dissolved Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), including 27 defendants in exile who were tried and convicted in absentia.

The government continued to curtail media freedom in the country, including by revoking the licenses of news outlets. In early 2022, the authorities were due to implement a government order establishing a “National Internet Gateway,” which would restrict the free flow of information between Cambodia and the rest of the world and poses serious surveillance concerns. The government postponed the gateway’s start with no new date set.

Throughout 2022, the authorities provided several public updates on efforts to draft a law to establish a national human rights institution, but have not released a draft nor committed to complying with the Paris Principles, which govern national human rights institutions.

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