The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Rhona Smith, arrived in the country on Monday to begin a 10-day mission.
According to civil society representatives who met Smith on the first day of her mission, human rights groups raised concerns over the situation for freedom of expression, Internet freedoms, pressure on civil society and the fairness of elections in coming years.
Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, told VOA Khmer that rights groups had raised concerns over legislation to regulate nongovernmental organizations and elections, which they argue will make it more difficult for civil society to operate in the country.
“What civil society have raised to her is related to the fundamental rights and democracy in Cambodia, which is under threat,” said Sopheap. “We also raised about the rights situation, focusing on freedom of expression related to the recently enacted laws, which put pressure on fundamental rights. As we know, the NGO Law and the Election Law are threatening NGOs, who are working closely on these political activities.”
Sopheap said NGOs will have to play an important role with forthcoming commune elections in 2017 and national elections the following year, which are expected to be hard fought, and at which there will be a heightened risk of unrest.
Likewise, Nay Vong Da, a human rights monitor at local group Adhoc, who also met Smith on Monday, told VOA Khmer that pressure had been rising on human rights groups at a local level. Adhoc seminars on rights education had been stopped in the past few months, he added.
However, Nay Vong Da said, “We are happy because we have informed [Smith] about all aspects of the rights issues and the restriction of our civil society organizations.
“She listened and took notes carefully and promised to bring all these issues to discuss with the government to change, improve or to properly implement international standards.”
Smith’s 10-day mission is her second official visit to the country after she took the chair in 2015.
According to a statement from the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Smith, a professor of international human rights law at the U.K.’s Northumbria University, will focus on women rights and indigenous rights on her trip. She will also take a close look at Cambodian civil society’s concerns over recent developments regarding human rights in the country, it said.
The U.N. Human Rights office in Bangkok released a statement on Thursday last week condemning the conviction of Cambodian Facebook user Kong Raya, who was charged with incitement after posting about a “color revolution” in the country.
Adhoc’s Nay Vong Da told VOA Khmer that Kong Raya’s case, and other recent cases involving Internet freedom, were brought to the envoy’s attention.
“We also raised issues related to the online threats and imprisoning [people for] online expression, including Kong Raya’s case, [opposition senator] Hong Sok Hour’s case, and other related cases,” said Nay Vong Da. “We have told [Smith] to raise the issue with the government’s leaders to understand these rights, which are stated in the constitutional law.”
However, the head of the government’s Human Rights Committee, Mak Sambath, dismissed the concerns raised by civil society, saying the government was implementing laws and working toward the rule of law.
“To have human rights respected, we need to obey the law, which is not creating chaotic activities like we wish,” Sambath said. “For instance, the freedom of expression on social media, Facebook, the government allows us to use it. We can do constructive criticism of the government, not inciting and insulting the leaders. It is not freedom of expression.”
“If you look at countries in Southeast Asia, related to freedom of speech, which country is better than Cambodia? There is none,” he added.
Sambath said he was scheduled to meet the U.N. envoy on Friday, when he will discuss about human rights reports on Cambodia and the establishment of a national institute on human rights.
Smith will also meet with key government officials, lawmakers, rights monitors and political parties during the mission.