A United Nations report criticizes escalating violence ahead of Cambodia's first local elections.

The U.N. says increasing attacks on election activists could allow violence to become endemic to the country's democratic process. The warning is in a report released Tuesday by the U.N.'s Special Representative of the Secretary General for Human Rights in Cambodia.

The country holds its first elections for leaders of more than 1,600 clusters of villages, which are called communes, on February 3. Rights groups estimate that about 15 candidates and activists have been murdered in the past year.

The U.N. report welcomes recent comments by Prime Minister Hun Sen condemning pre-election violence. Mr. Hun Sen issued another statement Tuesday calling for local authorities, armed forces and political parties to ensure a peaceful election.

U.N. representatives join a chorus of human rights workers and diplomats in urging the government to take more specific action to end the violence. They particularly want more action in cases of the activists who were killed. The government says none of the killings were politically motivated.

Adrian Edwards is a political violence analyst for the U.N. in Cambodia and helped put together the report. He says that since 1993, when Cambodia held its first national elections, political violence has not decreased. "We're not seeing further improvements, or the kind of improvement you would hope to see ... and that raises a danger that some of these bad practices [that] are happening are becoming entrenched here, that violence, that intimidation is becoming the norm of elections and that's not healthy," he said.

U.N. representatives point out that even seemingly minor offenses, such as destroying political party signs, are intimidating in Cambodia's fragile political environment, and in light of its past experience. Cambodia is enjoying relative peace after almost three decades of civil war and control by violent regimes.

The report also criticizes high-ranking authorities for shielding local officials and police who are suspected of being involved in intimidating and attacking members of opposition parties.

Rights groups say that almost all of the victims of intimidation and violence have been members of opposition parties.