News / Asia

Cambodia Lags on Land, Freedom of Speech Rights, Says UN Official

Surya Subedi, U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia, speaks at a press conference in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, during a trip in February 2011 (FILE PHOTO).
Surya Subedi, U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia, speaks at a press conference in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, during a trip in February 2011 (FILE PHOTO).

The United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Cambodia Surya Subedi wrapped up his fifth visit to Cambodia on Friday expressing concern about the lack of progress on land rights and freedom of speech in the country.

The main purpose of the visit - his fifth --was to assess how well parliament functions in upholding the rights of ordinary Cambodians.

On that score, he said that while human rights had improved in some areas, it had noticeably failed to do so in others such as land rights and freedom of speech.

Cambodia’s ruling party holds more than two-thirds of the seats in parliament. The opposition complains that allows it to push through legislation without taking anyone else’s concerns into account.

Opposition MPs that have spoken out on a number of issues in the past have found themselves stripped of their parliamentary immunity and even convicted for talking about issues of national importance. Subedi said that sort of action is not what democracy is about.

Subedi said he had discussed the topic of stripping parliamentary immunity with the head of parliament, the ruling party’s Heng Samrin, who replied that the legislature was merely following its own internal rules.

“But I am examining the internal rules and procedures themselves to see to what extent they are compatible with Cambodia’s international human rights obligations,” he said.

Subedi said there were some positive developments, such as the fact that government had consulted with civil society and trade unions on pending laws that would affect them.

But he warned that talking was not enough, adding that the government needs to demonstrate that it is incorporating the concerns of others.

During his stay, Subedi met senior government officials, as well as donors, representatives from civil society, members of the political opposition and ordinary Cambodians. He stressed that land and housing rights had been one of his major concerns since he took up the post of U.N. human rights envoy two years ago.

“The problem has not gone away," he said. "Land grabbing by the rich and powerful has been a problem, and economic and other forms of land concessions have affected the rights of the indigenous people living in rural areas.”

Subedi said he had met with citizens threatened by eviction, including residents from a site in Phnom Penh that was awarded to a ruling party senator.

“I am aware of their problem. I am sympathetic to their problem. I have made my representation at the highest level possible with the government. That was one of the reasons why I included in my recommendations that when people have a land dispute they should be able to go to court and receive fair and impartial justice," he said. "That was the reason why my last report was focused on the judiciary, on strengthening the independence and capacity of the judiciary.”

Subedi said a great deal of work was still needed in that area.

Cambodia's constitution provides for freedom of speech, but that right is often squashed by what authorities say is a need for public security.  Earlier this year, Subedi expressed concern that the space to express government criticism was narrowing.  He said he did not see the situation improving.

“The situation I am afraid has not changed in this country with regard to freedom of speech. That is where I would like to see some progress made,” he said.

Subedi will submit his report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva in September.

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