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Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet (left), stands next to his father, Hun Sen, former prime minister and current Senate president, during the country’s 70th Independence Day, in Phnom Penh, November 9, 2023. © 2023 AP Photo/Heng Sinith

(Bangkok) – Cambodia’s new prime minister has not brought about positive changes in human rights in the country, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2024Cambodia’s rights record worsened in 2023 as the ruling Cambodian People’s Party tightened control over the judiciary and other state institutions, subverted the July national election by preventing the main opposition party’s participation, shut down independent media outlets, and targeted critics with harassment, detention, and physical violence. On August 22, Hun Sen, who ruled Cambodia as prime minister since 1985, handed over the position to his son, Hun Manet. Hun Sen remains head of the ruling party and serves as Senate president.

“The political transition to Prime Minister Hun Manet is just putting ‘old wine in a new bottle’ when it comes to human rights and democratic freedoms in Cambodia,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Cambodia’s trade and aid partners should send clear messages that future engagement with the government will reflect whether genuine efforts are being made to improve the human rights situation in the country.”

In the 740-page World Report 2024, its 34th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In her introductory essay, Executive Director Tirana Hassan says that 2023 was a consequential year not only for human rights suppression and wartime atrocities but also for selective government outrage and transactional diplomacy that carried profound costs for the rights of those not in on the deal. But she says there were also signs of hope, showing the possibility of a different path, and calls on governments to consistently uphold their human rights obligations. 

On May 15, the government-controlled National Election Committee barred the main opposition party, the Candlelight Party, from fielding candidates in the July election on bogus, politically motivated grounds, thereby ensuring that the election would not be a meaningful democratic process.

The UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia said there was an “urgent need for comprehensive reforms” and identified significant obstacles that could have affected the 2023 elections, including attempts to negatively influence the vote, disqualification of candidates, harassment of opposition members, and concerns about the independence of the National Election Committee.

Attacks against opposition and government critics continued after the election and shared similarities with assaults reported earlier in 2023 against Candlelight Party members, which were never seriously investigated.

On March 3, a court found political opposition leader Kem Sokha guilty of treason and sentenced him to 27 years in prison and indefinitely suspended his political rights to vote and to stand for election. United Nations experts said the “politically motivated” conviction provided “further evidence of an ongoing pattern of the misapplication of laws to target political opponents and any critic of the Government.”

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