The UN Secretary General has called on Southeast Asian nations to ensure “democratic space and freedom of expression” and hold “transparent and free elections.”
António Guterres did not single out specific countries for criticism, but his comments on Friday came after several members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) held elections that were widely criticized by the international community.
At the Asean-UN ministerial meeting on Friday, Guterres said: “Following the first meeting of the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights with the United Nations in May, a number of new activities have begun. I strongly encourage all progress towards freedom of expression and the enlargement of political and democratic space.”
“Asean’s leadership on human rights is critical, and I welcome recent joint human rights initiatives on business, environment and media freedom. I encourage you to make every effort towards transparent and fair elections to further consolidate peace and security in the region,” he added.
Cambodia held a general election in July amid fierce criticism over the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s jailing of opposition leaders and the banning of the country’s main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party.
Hun Sen’s CPP won all 125 seats in parliament in the vote, marking a departure from pluralist democracy outlined in the country’s constitution.
Addressing the General Assembly on Friday, Hun Sen defended the election process, saying “Cambodia is now governed by the rule of law and firmly respects multiparty liberal democracy, with regular, free and fair elections, held to enable its people to choose the country's leadership.”
“Some external circles, who have fed on an ambition to interfere in the domestic affairs of Cambodia, still fail to see the quality and integrity of our election process by issuing statements against [us] or attacking the election outcome. Such actions are a serious assault on the will of the Cambodian people,” he said.
Farhan Haq, Guterres’ deputy spokesman, said Guterres was concerned about democracy in Cambodia and hoped that the situation will improve.
“At this stage, we continue to emphasize that you need fair competition and respect for human rights. Those are essential building blocks for a solid democracy to develop. Anyway, that is our hope for Cambodia,” he said.
Hun Sen faced hundreds of protesters during his visit to New York but was also met by a number of supporters who rallied at the hotel where he was staying.
The United States and Europe provided billions of dollars in aid with the aim of transforming Cambodia into a “liberal democracy”. Currently, the United States and EU are considering possible sanctions on Cambodia and its removal from a key EU preferential trade scheme.
“The international community is divided between countries like China and Russia, which see Hun Sen as useful to their interests, and the US and EU, which see Hun Sen as not only a human rights violator but also as a lackey of China,” said Paul Chambers, international affairs adviser at Thailand's Naresuan University.
“When countries look at how the CPP won every seat in the National Assembly while the courts and the military answer to the ruling party alone, it is near impossible for the international community to consider Cambodia anything beyond a facade democracy.”