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Failing justice, protests and violence

Asia Times - April 5, 2012

Rupert Abbott and John Coughlan, Phnom Penh On the morning of February 20, a man stepped out of his car and shot into a group of workers protesting at the Kaoway Sports Ltd factory in Bavet town, Cambodia. The factory supplies footwear to the German multinational sportswear company PUMA. Three women were injured; one of them, Buon Chinda, aged 21, was shot through the chest, the bullet narrowly missing her heart.

The shooter is widely believed to be the then-Bavet governor, apparently eager to put down the protests before they spread to other factories. Cambodian Interior Minister Sar Kheng has reportedly named him as the only suspect, and he has been removed from his position.

Civil society organizations, foreign governments, well-known international clothing brands supplied by Cambodian factories, and the Cambodian government itself have all condemned the shootings. Yet over one month on, and despite reports that the governor has admitted to the shootings, no one has been arrested.

The Bavet shootings are the latest in a series of violent incidents in Cambodia, where increasing protests are being dispersed with potentially lethal force. Cambodia is suffering from a vicious cycle of failing justice, protests and violence, with the Cambodian government not meeting its obligation to respect and protect the human rights of the Cambodian people.

Unable to rely on the country's corrupt law enforcement and judicial system, ordinary Cambodians are increasingly turning to public protests to defend their rights and interests. Powerful private interests are responding with violence against protesters, and enjoy impunity. This in turn is further weakening ordinary Cambodians' trust in the law enforcement and justice system, and so the cycle recurs. Unless immediate steps are taken, this cycle is likely to continue and more people may be injured or worse.

Rather than acting independently and upholding the rights of the people, law enforcement agencies and the courts protect the interests of politically-connected tycoons and businesses, and persecute those who get in their way. For example, no one was held accountable in September 2011 when police used bricks to beat unconscious Soung Sophorn, a community member and opposition activist protesting against the forced eviction of thousands of families around Phnom Penh's Boeung Kak Lake.

Yet two years before, in June 2009, Soung was quickly arrested, detained and convicted of criminal defamation after painting "Absolutely fighting against communist policy," and "People Suffer due to Cheap Government and Company" on the walls of his home, as a way of condemning the forced eviction of the lake community.

Cambodians are therefore increasingly turning to protests. While the protesters in Bavet were calling for a living wage, many of the other protests relate to ongoing land problems in Cambodia, with private interests grabbing land and thousands of families being forcibly evicted from their homes.

Of the 152 protests recorded by Phnom Penh City Hall in the capital in 2011, 75 related to land disputes. According to the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, in 2011 there were 256 protests throughout Cambodia, compared to 183 in 2010. About 50 of these involved violent confrontations between the security forces and protesters. Importantly, these protests can be successful, achieving resolutions that are rarely secured through the courts. In Bavet, for example, the factory reportedly agreed to meet the protestors' demands after the shootings.

But powerful private interests sometimes directly supported by state security forces are responding by resorting to violence against protesters, knowing that the law enforcement agencies will not investigate and the courts will not hold them accountable.

The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) issued a statement in January listing five incidents involving private interests in which protesters were shot, reportedly by both state and private actors, resulting in injuries to 19 people. In most of these cases, no steps have been taken to ensure a thorough investigation and to bring the perpetrators to justice.

In failing to protect protestors from violence and punish perpetrators, the Cambodian government is breaching its human-rights obligations under international and domestic law.

Cambodia's constitution protects the right to peaceful assembly and the right to free speech, that is, to peacefully protest. When protests turn violent, security forces may use only such force as is necessary and proportional to restore order and prevent injuries and deaths.

Security forces' use of unnecessary or excessive force to disperse protesters breaches the human rights treaties to which Cambodia is a state party, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The right to security, which obliges Cambodia to protect its citizens from violence, whether perpetrated by state or private actors, is also guaranteed under Cambodia's constitution.

Reputation risks

In a welcome move, the Cambodian government has condemned the use of violence against protestors. Speaking in January 2012, after three protesters were shot in Kratie province's Snuol district while trying to stop a company from destroying their cassava fields, Prime Minister Hun Sen condemned the violence and said that he "cannot tolerate it". After the Bavet shootings, Interior Minister Sar Kheng stated that orders to shoot people are reminiscent of the Khmer Rouge regime and that it was the authorities' responsibility to protect people.

As the violence against protesters continues and most of the perpetrators remain free, it may appear that the government is simply paying lip service to Cambodia's human-rights obligations, while actually being unwilling or perhaps unable to control and hold accountable politically-connected powerful private interests. But the government will be aware that its failure to stop the vicious cycle of failing justice, protests and violence and to ensure that the human rights of the Cambodian people are respected and protected is impacting on its international and domestic standing.

As Cambodia chairs the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), lobbies for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, and seeks to increase exports and attract more foreign investment and tourism revenue, the violent repression of Cambodians struggling to protect their land and livelihoods is harming the country's international reputation.

After the Bavet shootings, clothing brands including PUMA, Gap and H&M submitted a joint letter to the Cambodian Ministry of Commerce urging "the Royal Government of Cambodia to conduct a full and transparent investigation" and "hold those responsible for injuring workers accountable". Japan's ambassador to Cambodia, Masafumi Kuroki, reportedly called for "safety for investors" and for the Bavet shooter to be found and tried.

Furthermore, the use of violence against protesters, and the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators, may raise questions at home about the government's will and capacity to protect the human rights and dignity of ordinary Cambodians. In this regard, while the ruling Cambodian People's Party controls much of the media and withholds politically damaging information, the flow of information and awareness about the real human rights situation in Cambodia is improving through the use of mobile phones, independent radio and increased networking among communities. And as described, more and more Cambodians are protesting.

To fulfill its obligation to respect and protect human rights, the Cambodian government must urgently follow up its strong words with concrete actions. As a start, individuals within the government and ruling party must not shield alleged perpetrators of violence. There must be investigations where violence has been used against protesters, and the courts must fairly try suspected perpetrators. This may help quell the anger of the victims of violence in Bavet and elsewhere, restore some faith amongst the population in the rule of law, and deter others from using violence in the future.

Ultimately, however, the government must thoroughly reform Cambodia's law enforcement and justice system, which is allowing powerful private interests to operate above the law to the detriment of the human rights of ordinary Cambodians.

The government should follow the clear framework for reform set out in the September 2010 report by Professor Surya Subedi, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, including the passing and implementation of laws to ensure the justice system functions independently. The government must free the law enforcement and justice system from political control and corruption and invest in strengthening its capacity to act in the interests of the people, as provided in Cambodia's constitution.

Such reform would allow ordinary Cambodians to rely on the courts to protect their rights and other interests and as a forum for fairly settling disputes. And when security forces use excessive force to put down protests, or when private interests use violence against protestors, such reform would help ensure that those responsible are effectively investigated and held accountable. It would also ensure that those whose rights have been abused, whether by private or official actors, are provided with reparations.

Should the Cambodian government fail to follow up its public condemnation of the ongoing violence against protesters with real action, the vicious cycle of failing justice, protests and violence is likely to persist. And as human-rights abuses continue, the government will see its standing at home and abroad suffer further.

[Rupert Abbott is Amnesty International's Researcher on Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. John Coughlan is the Senior Researcher at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, an independent non-governmental organization based in Cambodia.]

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