Cambodia: Arrests of strikers may amount to breach of human rights law – UN experts

Geneva,  January 05, 2022.- The arrest and detention of at least 29 casino union leaders and activists during a strike that began on New Year’s Eve in Cambodia may amount to a breach of human rights law, UN experts said today.

“Many of the arrests of the mostly women strikers were conducted in a violent way and appear to contravene the freedoms of association, assembly and expression,” the independent human rights experts said.

“We also strongly condemn the manner in which the first arrests took place, after dark on a day where multiple other events diverted public attention. This could be seen as an underhanded way to clamp down on fundamental human rights and impinge on the free exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.”

The experts called on the Government to explain the response by the police, and said they were following developments closely.

Nine people – seven women and two men – have so far been charged with ‘incitement to commit a felony’ under Articles 494 and 495 of the Cambodian Penal Code and remain in custody while the others have been released. These same provisions have previously been used to prosecute human rights defenders in the country.

The first arrests of nine people took place at around 8pm on 31 December. Continued strikes resulted in another 17 arrests on 3 January; while the three most senior union leaders, including its President Chhim Sithar, were separately arrested on 4 January on their way to join the ongoing strikes. Video footage of arrests shows police using what appears to be excessive force during the arrests.

Trade union leaders and activists have been striking since 18 December 2021 against what they deem as the unfair dismissal of 365 Naga World casino and resort staff members, following unsuccessful negotiations with their employer, the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training and Phnom Penh Municipal authorities.

“The pattern and manner of these arrests, after industrial action failed to be resolved quickly, appears to be an escalation in tactics used in previous cases that have occurred in Cambodia over recent years and resulted in the wrongful imprisonment of human rights defenders,” the experts said.

The Cambodian Constitution enshrines the right to strike and the rights to freedom of association, expression, peaceful assembly, press and publication, while Article 319 of the Cambodian Labour Law guarantees the right to strike. In addition, obligations set out in international human rights treaties to which Cambodia is a party, in particular the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), include the protection of freedom of expression (Article 19); the right to peaceful assembly (Article 21); and the right to freedom of association (Article 22). These must be respected and protected by the Cambodian authorities.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn has previously spoken out on the shrinking of civic and political space in the country.

“The latest charges and arrests are of particular concern as the country gears up for commune elections this year, followed by national elections the year after. This sends a chilling message to Cambodian people on their space to assemble freely,” the experts said, urging officials to uphold their commitments to both international human rights and domestic law and provide full transparency in the proceedings of these cases.

In addition, the experts once again called on the Government to implement recommendations they have accepted during the 2019 Universal Periodic Review. which include a pledge to create conditions where “civil society, including human rights defenders, can freely carry out their work without interference or hindrance”.

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