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