Covering events from January - December 2003

Impunity and a weak and corrupt judicial system that is neither fair nor independent continued to seriously undermine any progress on human rights. At least 18 politically motivated killings were reported, as well as harassment and intimidation of political party activists and voters in the context of the July national elections and the aftermath. Cambodia's willingness to respect its obligations under international treaties that it has signed was in doubt as a result of its weak implementation of legal safeguards against torture, its failure to bring perpetrators of human rights violations to justice and its policies towards asylum-seekers. Hundreds of Vietnamese (Montagnard) asylum-seekers were forcibly returned to Viet Nam. A revised agreement for the establishment of a criminal tribunal to bring to justice Khmer Rouge leaders was endorsed by the UN General Assembly, but was not formally ratified by the Cambodian legislature.


In Phnom Penh in January, one woman was shot dead and dozens injured as mobs attacked and looted Thai-owned property, including the Thai embassy, after inflammatory anti-Thai newspaper articles and remarks by senior politicians. Dozens of people who were arrested, tried and sentenced in connection with the riots were released in September and October. The riots provoked serious international concern about stability and security in Cambodia and a sharp deterioration in relations with neighbouring Thailand.

National elections were held in July. The Cambodian People's Party (CPP) led by Prime Minister Hun Sen won the largest number of votes but not sufficient to form a government. This led to increased tensions and a political crisis when the two opposition parties, the National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC) and the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) formed an Alliance of Democrats and refused to join a government with Hun Sen as prime minister. The stalemate had not been resolved by the end of the year.

In September Cambodia became one of the first countries with Least Developed Country status to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), pending ratification by the Cambodian legislature by March 2004. Some concerns were expressed about the possible social and economic impact on the population.

Drafts of a Criminal Code, a Criminal Procedure Code and other much needed legislation were not completed. A draft Law against Domestic Violence was debated but, along with other legislation, was still awaiting the formation of a new government before it could be further debated and approved.


The Cambodian authorities failed to respect their international obligations under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the UN Convention against Torture. Hundreds of Vietnamese asylum-seekers from the Central Highlands (Montagnards) were forcibly returned to Viet Nam despite mounting evidence of ill-treatment amounting to torture and the imposition of long prison sentences after unfair trials upon their return (see Viet Nam entry). Many asylum-seekers – women, children and men – spent long periods hiding in jungle areas with little access to food and medical care. There were numerous reports of interference by Vietnamese border police and other security officials on the Cambodian side of the border in the rounding up and deportation of asylum-seekers, including payment of "bounties". Despite negotiations between the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the authorities, the UNHCR continued to be denied access to border areas and was unable to provide full protection to asylum-seekers.

  • Information emerged in July confirming concerns that Thich Tri Luc, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk recognized as a refugee by UNHCR, had been forcibly returned to Viet Nam in July 2002, despite previous government denials. On his return he was detained pending trial (see Viet Nam entry).

Khmer Rouge tribunal

The UN resumed negotiations with the Cambodian government on the establishment of a criminal tribunal to bring to justice suspected perpetrators of gross human rights violations during the period of Khmer Rouge rule (1975-1979). After a series of meetings, a revised draft agreement was put to the UN General Assembly, which was endorsed in May. The draft agreement, not yet ratified by the Cambodian legislature, provided for the establishment of Extraordinary Chambers in Cambodian courts with international assistance. While this agreement was an improvement on earlier versions, serious flaws remained which threatened the integrity of the legal process and set a dangerous precedent for other future international or mixed tribunals. Concerns included the feasibility and inherent weakness of the proposed "mixed" tribunal consisting of Cambodian and international judicial officials, and inadequate provision for victim and witness protection.

Political violence and intimidation

Political violence and intimidation took place mainly in the context of the July national elections. At least 14 people were believed to have been unlawfully killed before and during the election process, and a further four during the political crisis over the formation of a government after the election. In most instances the immediate government reaction was to deny any political motivation in the killings.

  • Om Radsady, a senior and well-respected FUNCINPEC politician, was shot and killed in Phnom Penh in February. Although the authorities quickly claimed that he was killed in an armed robbery and two men were arrested, tried and sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment in October, it was widely believed that the killing was politically motivated.
  • In August Khuon Dina, the 16-year-old daughter of an SRP activist, was shot dead in Kampong Cham. Local human rights organizations condemned the killing and the subsequent release of the convicted murderer, a village chief, after he was given a suspended sentence and probation.
  • On 18 October Chuor Chetharith, the deputy editor of Ta Prohm radio station owned by FUNCINPEC, was shot dead in the street in Phnom Penh. It was reported that a joint CPP/FUNCINPEC committee had been established to investigate this incident, but had not made its findings public by the end of the year.
  • On 21 October popular singer Touch Sunith was shot and critically injured. Her mother was shot trying to protect her and died. Touch Sunith had recorded many pro-FUNCINPEC songs which were played extensively on Ta Prohm radio during the election period.

Human rights defenders

In January Uch Kim Nary, the Director of Peaceful Women for the Environment, a Cambodian non-governmental organization (NGO), was threatened with arrest by the police. She had been accused by government officials of helping to organize a gathering in Phnom Penh of representatives of forest communities in December 2002 who wished to make representations to the Department of Forestry and Wildlife. Police violently broke up the peaceful gathering, beating people and using electric batons. At the same time the authorities threatened to sue Eva Galabru, the local representative of the environmental NGO Global Witness, for "disinformation", a charge carrying a maximum three-year prison sentence. Global Witness had issued a statement detailing the excessive force used by police in breaking up the December gathering. The case was later dropped by the authorities. The Cambodian authorities subsequently terminated their agreement with Global Witness to monitor logging activities in the country.


As in previous years, there were no successful prosecutions of alleged perpetrators of torture. The long overdue initial report on implementation of the UN Convention against Torture, which was examined by the Committee against Torture in April, showed weak implementation of legal safeguards to prevent torture and lack of effective sanctions against perpetrators. The government did not send a delegation to attend the Committee's hearing.

AI country visits

An AI delegation visited Cambodia in January.

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