Human Rights Watch, the international advocacy group, has called on the Cambodian government to repeal a series of laws it says “repress” independent groups in the country.
The statement by HRW published this week focused on a law regulating non-governmental groups and two other laws that it said restricted the functioning of civil society groups.
It added that the recent government announcement that NGOs would no longer need to inform local authorities when they were planning to hold meetings and other events three days in advance as a “small step” in the right direction.
“The Cambodian government’s repeal of the three-day notice requirement is a small step in the right direction, but it won’t end the harassment and threats against activist groups in Cambodia,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy director of HRW’s Asia division, was quoted as saying in the statement.
“What’s needed is a serious government commitment to repeal all laws that have been used to repress the activities of independent groups,” he added.
Over the past year, the Cambodian government has intensified its crackdown on opposition party supporters, land rights activists, human rights defenders, and trade unionists. Organizations working on human rights, land and natural resource rights, labor protection, and democracy face surveillance and reported intimidation, arbitrary arrests and prosecutions, and lengthy pre-trial detention, according to the statement.
The group said that since 2015 the government has adopted several “repressive” laws and tightened restrictive provisions in existing statutes. “These revisions have been made stealthily, without public consultations with the people affected by the actions,” it said.
“The government has imposed severe restrictions on the rights to free expression, peaceful assembly and association. Rights-infringing new legislation includes the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO), the Trade Union Law, a lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) clause in the Penal Code, and amendments to the Constitution.”
“Organizations frequently report that local authorities and police interfere with their meetings and training sessions, frequently seeking to shut down events, or sit in the back of rooms, taking photos and requesting attendance lists of meeting participants.”
Robertson added: “The Cambodian government should stop considering activist groups a threat and start seeing them as valuable partners for improving Cambodia.”
Rights workers in Cambodia echoed the comments by HRW.
Am Sam Ath, head of local rights group Licadho’s investigations unit, said repealing the laws would be difficult, instead suggesting that amending the legislation may be a simpler process.
“If we intend to revisit those laws ... we can make amendments of some articles of those laws that are considered to be restrictive on freedom of association and non-governmental organizations as well as unions,” he said.
Gen. Khieu Sopheak, Interior Ministry spokesman, said the government accepted that there were opposing views regarding the laws, adding: “Whatever he thinks is his right, but we want [to keep the laws] we have.”
In a statement on Monday posted to its Facebook page, the U.S. Embassy called for “the dropping of charges against all political prisoners.”
The statement likely refers to Kem Sokha, the president of Cambodia’s banned opposition party, who is being held under house arrest on treason charges, as well as a series of other opposition officials and supporters and activists.