PHNOM PENH — A senior UN rights diplomat says freedom in Cambodia has worsened since the 2013 elections, and especially since January.
Following a fact-finding mission to Cambodia this week, Flavia Pansieri, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, told reporters “there has been a deterioration in 2014 in the extent to which freedom of expression and assembly in Cambodia are guaranteed and enjoyed.”
“The ongoing ban on demonstrations in Phnom Penh, in force since 4 January, is an issue I raised with the authorities on several occasions this week,” she said. “I reiterate the view that the ‘ban’ on demonstrations falls short of the test of legality, necessity, and proportionality. I urge the government to take the necessary measures to remove this ban without further delay and to ensure that all citizens are able to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and assembly.”
Pansieri met this week with senior government officials, including Foreign Minister Hor Namhong and Om Yentieng, head of the government’s Human Rights Committee. She also met with rights groups, prisoners and victims of forced evictions.
Violent crackdowns have led to at least six deaths between September 2013 and January 2014, as well as the disappearance of a 16-year-old boy, though no one has been held accountable, she said Friday. “I call upon the authorities to step up their efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice without further delay.”
During her visit, clashes continued between opposition supporters, bystanders and security personnel, including police. On Thursday, bystanders were arbitrarily beaten, along with journalists, outside Freedom Park, where the opposition has staged a series of nonviolent demonstrations against the ban on assembly.
“I was deeply saddened to learn yesterday of the beating of a man at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park by district security guards,” Pansieri said Friday. “I was also concerned to learn that a number of journalists were reportedly hit by security guards while trying to photograph. The use of excessive force raises serious concerns about the role of district security guards in dealing with demonstrations and public order.”
Chan Soveth, deputy head of investigation at Adhoc, said Friday that the concerns raised by Pansieri reflect the “reality of Cambodia” and should increase pressure on the government to make changes. But he also said her message was not strong enough.
“She has not spoken frankly and directly to the government on its weaknesses, including respect of human rights,” he said. “She should have said clearly that the government must remove its ban on gatherings at Freedom Park, release the detainees, and respect human rights. This is a must, not just recommendations or concerns.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan defended the ban as temporary.
“We don’t intend to permanently close Freedom Park,” he said. “We will open it again when the situation returns to normal.” The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party is welcome to hold rallies at its headquarters, he added.