Covering events from January - December 2002

KINGDOM OF CAMBODIA
Head of state: King Norodom Sihanouk
Head of government: Hun Sen
Death penalty: abolitionist for all crimes
International Criminal Court: ratified

Montagnard refugees (members of minority groups from the Central Highlands of Viet Nam) continued to arrive in Cambodia in large numbers. Fears grew over Cambodia's lack of commitment to its obligations as a state party to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Attempts by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to guarantee protection collapsed. Hundreds of Montagnards were accepted for resettlement in the USA, but hundreds of new arrivals were arrested and forcibly returned to Viet Nam. In the run-up to February's commune-level elections, at least 17 candidates were reported to have been killed. Political violence and intimidation continued in the run-up to the national elections to be held in mid-2003. The UN decided not to support the Cambodia tribunal for Khmer Rouge leaders, citing concerns about the court's independence, impartiality and objectivity and saying that trials would not meet international standards of justice. However, in November the UN General Assembly asked for negotiations between the UN Secretary-General and Cambodia to begin again on this issue. Impunity remained a major obstacle to human rights protection in Cambodia. Torture and ill-treatment in detention centres was reported throughout the year. The criminal justice system continued to suffer from endemic corruption and remained weak.


Background

Commune-level elections, the first to be held at grassroots level since the Paris Peace Accords in 1991 that formally ended the civil war, were won by the Cambodian People's Party (CPP). CPP candidates won over 90 per cent of the commune chief positions contested. International election observers reported that voting and counting of votes were carried out in an acceptable way, but raised concerns about pre-election violence and intimidation.

Compared to previous years, the political situation in 2002 was relatively stable. The CPP continued to consolidate power as its weaker coalition partner, the National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC) saw defections and important figures leaving the party.

In April Cambodia ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Cambodia hosted without incident an Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders' meeting in November for the first time, marking an important step for the country on the international stage.

A major meeting of donors was held in June in the capital Phnom Penh. It resulted in the international community pledging US$635 million to Cambodia for the following year. However, donors raised concerns about corruption, lack of progress on judicial reforms, the need for free and fair elections, unauthorized logging and the slow pace of military demobilization.

Refugees

In March the UNHCR withdrew from a tripartite agreement with Cambodia and Viet Nam on the voluntary repatriation for Montagnards that had been signed in January. The UNHCR's action resulted from the intimidation of asylum-seekers by a 400-strong visiting Vietnamese delegation of officials and relatives to refugee camps in northeast Cambodia, threats made against UNHCR staff, and problems of limited access to returnees in Viet Nam. After March, Cambodia began to deport new arrivals against their will, in breach of its international obligations under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. However, the majority of the approximately 900 Montagnard asylum-seekers who had arrived in 2001 continued to be resettled in the USA as part of a bilateral arrangement.

  • Three asylum-seekers under UNHCR protection – a Vietnamese monk and a Chinese married couple who claimed to be practitioners of the Falun Gong spiritual movement – went missing and were widely believed to have been forcibly returned to their respective countries. The incidents led to an unusual public criticism of Cambodia by the UNHCR.
Khmer Rouge cases

In February the UN withdrew from discussions with the government to establish a criminal tribunal to bring to justice suspected perpetrators of gross human rights violations during the period of Khmer Rouge rule (1975-1979). This followed the government's continuing refusal to address concerns regarding the independence and impartiality of this judicial process which had been highlighted by the UN's legal office in previous years. The government's stance was in contrast to Cambodia's ratification of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in April. In November a new UN resolution was passed which opened the way for renewed negotiations on the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
  • Two Khmer Rouge suspects arrested in 1999 remained in detention. One of them, Ta Mok, was charged in February with crimes against humanity under Cambodian law, providing legal justification for his continued pre-trial detention.
Political violence and intimidation

The high level of political violence and intimidation reported in the run-up to the February commune-level elections left a reported 17 candidates dead, including three women candidates who were shot dead in January. Killings, harassment and intimidation continued as the national elections, due in July 2003, approached. According to one report from a local human rights organization, seven party activists were killed after the February elections and many others faced threats and intimidation. All of the alleged politically motivated killings were of members of FUNCINPEC or the Sam Rainsy Party, the other main opposition party. The ruling CCP candidates and activists did not appear to be targets.

Torture

In August, five prison guards accused of torture were acquitted in a landmark case, the first trial of state agents accused of torture since 1993. The trial stemmed from an attempted prison escape from Kompong Cham provincial prison in 1999, when five men were caught and allegedly beaten severely in front of other prisoners. The acquittal was strongly criticized by the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Human Rights in Cambodia. The court recommended that the five guards face "administrative action". The five victims remained in prison serving their original sentences and fears were expressed for their safety by the Special Envoy and others.

A leading Cambodian human rights advocacy organization released a report in August showing a rise in human rights violations in prisons, including torture, which it attributed to a sharp increase in the prison population. Of more than 2,000 inmates questioned by the organization, over 10 per cent alleged that they had been tortured in police custody with a smaller percentage claiming they had been tortured in prison.

Impunity

The promotion and protection of human rights continued to be severely hampered by the lamentable state of the judicial system. The combination of poor facilities, low salaries, executive interference, lack of education and training, and weak and poorly enforced legislation has created a judicial system in which people have no confidence and which daily fails in its duties and responsibilities. Numerous judicial reform initiatives, many supported by international donors, did not result in concrete improvements.

Visits

An AI delegation visited Cambodia in March.

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