Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's regime has been accused of systematic abuses. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

On November 25-26, Cambodia will host the 13th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Summit. This is a big deal for the Cambodian government, which is determined to change the often-overlooked summit into a big media event to expand its regional geopolitical and economic profile.

At the top of the ASEM agenda will no doubt be Myanmar’s horrific human-rights record since the February 1 military coup, and ASEAN’s decision to disinvite the coup leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. But while they are rightly focused on Myanmar, the leaders of the European Union and its member states should not give Cambodia a free pass on human-rights either. 

It is no secret that the relationship between Cambodia and the EU has been strained ever since the European Commission’s August 2020 decision partly to suspend Cambodia’s trade preferences under the Everything But Arms (EBA) program.

The EC acted at the end of an enhanced engagement with Cambodian authorities, who were given every chance to prevent the adoption of the measure by ending the “serious and systematic violations” of labor rights and civil and political rights that they are obligated to uphold. 

Since then, the human-rights situation in Cambodia has significantly worsened, descending into a full-blown crisis, with mass trials of opposition activists and a clampdown on independent media and civil society, as the European Parliament recognized in a strongly worded resolution on Cambodia passed in March.  

The government of Prime Minister Hun Sen has demonstrated a willingness to do everything necessary to dismantle the political opposition ahead of scheduled commune elections in 2022 and national elections in 2023. At the ASEM meeting, the EU and its member states should loudly condemn the government’s complete disregard for its obligations under international human rights law.

Cambodia’s once vibrant independent media scene has become a ghost of itself under government harassment. The government harasses civil-society groups on an organizational and individual level under an array of draconian laws, both old and new, and measures that have allowed the government to step up its onslaught on peaceful activism, human-rights work, and independent voices.

The EU, within the context of the EBA process, set several clear human-rights benchmarks to be met for its benefits to be fully maintained. A top priority was ending the politically motivated prosecution of Kem Sokha, the leader of the judicially dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

The authorities arrested him in September 2017 on bogus treason charges, held him in pretrial detention in a remote prison for a year, and only transferred him to house arrest when his health seriously deteriorated. He is prohibited, among other restrictions, from taking part in political activities. Since then, the authorities have dragged their feet and indefinitely postponed his trial, while maintaining the rights-abusing restrictions.  

On November 1, Cambodia’s ruling-party-controlled courts convicted 16-year-old Kak Sovann Chhay, a son of a detained opposition CNRP member, for Facebook posts critical of the government.

The boy has autism, but the authorities denied he had a disability and refused to assess his needs or make reasonable accommodation for this disability during police custody and interrogations, or during the many months of pretrial detention he faced, incarcerated with adults as well as other children. Such treatment clearly violates the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Cambodia has ratified. 

After a massive international outcry, Sovann Chhay’s sentence was partially suspended, and he was released after four and a half months in prison. However, he was placed under judicial supervision for two years, during which he will be required to report to the prosecutor if he changes his address or wishes to travel abroad. He must also appear before the court whenever summoned. 

Politically motivated arrests in Cambodia are commonplace. The government currently holds more than 60 political prisoners.

The authorities arrest community activists, trade unionists, human-rights defenders, independent journalists, and CNRP members for simply exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful public assembly. That number of prisoners is likely to increase again as mass trials against CNRP leaders and local supporters make their way through the courts. 

Starting in January 2022, Cambodia will also assume chairmanship of the Association off Southeast Asian Nations and thus host the ASEAN leaders’ summit as well as associated summits with foreign governments outside the European continent. 

This includes the US government, which has taken an increasingly strong position against the crackdown on activists, spoken out on human-rights issues, and even sent a high-profile diplomat to press Hun Sen to end his repression.

The ASEAN leaders’ summit will take place right after the commune elections in 2022. It is crucial for the EU, the US, and other like-minded governments to voice concerns and raise the price for rights abuses throughout this period. 

One way forward would be the adoption of long overdue targeted sanctions against Hun Sen and his abusive cronies, including those Human Rights Watch identified in detail in the report “Cambodia’s Dirty Dozen – A Long History of Rights Abuses by Hun Sen’s Generals.”

Such actions would signal to Hun Sen that continuing on his rights-abusing trajectory will not go unpunished. 

Cambodia’s lack of progress on judicial and democratic reforms, despite efforts by concerned governments, should not result in silence on human rights. Rather, Cambodia’s international partners should step up the pressure, building on the concerns and warnings already raised at the ASEM Summit. 

The EU and its member states should make democracy and human rights a central agenda item in the dialogue between Southeast Asia and Europe – not just with Myanmar, but everywhere systematic rights abuses are taking place. That would certainly not be the ASEM meeting Hun Sen expects, but after his 36 years of authoritarian rule, it would be the one he deserves. 

Phil Robertson

Phil Robertson is deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. Follow him on Twitter @Reaproy.