Trade unions, rights groups and other NGOs gathered at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park on Tuesday to mark International Human Rights Day, the last time the day will be a national holiday.
Around 21 civil society groups and around 2,000 participants attended the event on the outskirts of the city, at the new Freedom Park in Russey Keo district. Apart from reiterating concerns over long-standing rights violations, the groups made eight demands of the government, including independence of state institutions from political interference and a strengthening of freedom of expression in Cambodia.
Chan Ramy, executive director of the Youth Resource Development Program, said freedoms protecting expression had taken the biggest hit and that the lack of a political opposition made it hard to push for democratic reforms.
“The most important point is we want the government to ensure that every citizen has the rights and freedom of expression, rights of citizenship, and political rights to promote development,” said Chan Ramy.
Cambodia has faced increased pressure to address rights violations after the government orchestrated a crackdown on the political opposition, civil society and independent news organizations in 2017.
The 2018 national election saw the Cambodian People’s Party win all parliamentary seats, following the party’s occupying of all commune chief positions across the country.
These rights concerns have resulted in the European Union to investigate Cambodia’s human rights record that could see the potential suspension of the “Everything But Arms” trade scheme, which could deal a severe blow to the garment sector.
The government has removed Human Rights Day from the list of official national holidays, in anticipation of the EBA revocation, which many rights advocates argue was critical to enable grassroots communities to push for better rights protections.
Cheam Kun Thai, a first-year student at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, said the holiday allowed her to attend these events to help Cambodians express their opinions on human rights protections and violations.
“When we do not have a day to celebrate it, we can forget or don’t care about human rights. But, if we celebrate Human Rights Day, we have a sense of all the people who respect human rights and practice [enforcement of] human rights.”
Chin Malin, spokesman for the Ministry of Justice and deputy director of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, said celebrations on December 10 were only to further a “political” agenda.
"The Paris Peace Agreement was included in the 1993 Constitution and the government is implementing it,” he said.