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COMMITTEE ON THE ELIMINATION OF RACIAL DISCRIMINATION REVIEWS REPORT OF CAMBODIA, ASKS ABOUT NATIONALITY, LAND GRABS AND CIVIC SPACE

29 November 2019

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination today concluded its review of the combined fourteenth to seventeenth periodic report of Cambodia on its efforts to implement the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. During the dialogue, Committee Experts highlighted concerns about the harsh treatment of certain minorities, difficulties in proving nationality and obtaining identity cards, the grabs of indigenous land for commercial purposes, and the narrowing of the space for civil society.

Diaby Bakari Sidiki, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Cambodia, denounced violence and hate speech against the Khmer Krom, people of Vietnamese origin, especially in the aftermath of the very tense July 2018 elections. The Government seemed particularly harsh in their treatment of ethnic Christians of Vietnamese origins, the Montagnards, he said. The Shan, the Muslim minority, also seemed to upset the Government, while Uighurs had been refouled to China, despite the risks.

Cambodia recognized 24 races of indigenous peoples, said the delegation. They lived in 15 provinces and at 220,000 strong, represented 1.4 per cent of the population. Many laws and policies had been adopted to ensure the effective management of indigenous communities.

Cambodia had worked with the United Nations Refugee Agency to determine the refugee status of the 197 Montagnards who had fled Viet Nam, and to resettle, repatriate or accommodate them. A group of 20 Uighurs had entered the country illegally, that was why their return to the country of origin was about the implementation of the immigration law rather than about discrimination against this group.

In response to concerns about the risk of statelessness for some minorities due to difficulties in obtaining identity cards, the head of the delegation, Chet Chealy, Vice President of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, said that everyone had to fulfil all the administrative requirements, including to present an official document of nationality. The ability to speak Khmer was not a proof that the person was a Khmer, or a Cambodian citizen.

The Committee asked about the prevention of land grabs and occupation of indigenous lands by national and foreign companies alike. The costs of the grabs were rather high for indigenous peoples: displacement, and loss of livelihood, culture and identity, they noted with concern.

The delegation explained the process of recognition of land ownership for indigenous communities and noted that indigenous peoples occupied more land than the general Khmer population: 10 hectares per indigenous household versus 2.6 hectares for a Khmer family. Land allocated to indigenous peoples was agricultural, residential and ancestral land and it supported the indigenous lifestyle, culture and traditions.

Expressing concern about the situation of human rights defenders, the Committee Rapporteur and Experts asked about concrete measures taken to broaden the democratic space so that human rights defenders and civil society organizations could actively participate in an inclusive debate.

Sokkhoeurn An, Permanent Representative of Cambodia to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said that Cambodia held regular consultative forums with civil society organizations and an inter-ministerial working group had been set up to address the concerns raised about the law on associations and non-governmental organizations. He stressed that civil society was an indispensable part of the Cambodian society.

In his concluding remarks, Mr. Sidiki, the Committee Rapporteur, expressed confidence in Cambodia’s ability to fully implement the provisions of the Convention and urged it to continue to pursue the reforms.

Chet Chealy, Vice President of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee and head of the delegation, concluded by stressing that strengthening peace and stability was the absolute priority. Cambodia believed that human rights and democracy would seriously follow economic development and an increased level of education.

Noureddine Amir, Committee Chairperson, thanked the delegation for the quality of the dialogue.

The delegation of Cambodia included representatives of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, Ministry of Rural Development, Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, Ministry of Justice, the Legislation Council, and the Permanent Mission of Cambodia to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee will issue its concluding observations on the report of Cambodia at the end of the session on 13 December. Those, and other documents relating to the Committee’s work, including reports submitted by States parties, can be found on the session’s webpage.

Public meetings of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination are webcast live at http://webtv.un.org/, while the meeting summaries in English and French can be accessed at the United Nations Office at Geneva News and Media page.

The Committee will next meet in public on Monday, 2 December at 3 p.m. to examine the combined fifth to ninth periodic report of Ireland (CERD/C/IRL/5-9).

Report

The Committee is reviewing the combined (CERD/C/KHM/14-17) fourteenth to seventeenth periodic report of Cambodia.

Presentation of the Report of Cambodia

CHET CHEALY, Vice President of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, recalled at the outset that Cambodia had endured a long-lasting civil war and internal armed conflict, and that real peace and stability had only emerged in the very recent past. Political ideology and racial discrimination had been among the causes of the war and social unrest in the country. The Pol Pot regime had severely abused human rights and destroyed the social fabric of the country. That was why Cambodia had invested great efforts in harmonizing all ethnic and political groups, for the sake of human rights and development.

The definition of racial discrimination was enshrined in the Criminal Code, while the Constitution guaranteed the rights of all without discrimination. Two new articles of the Constitution, article 128 and article 130, defined the independence of the judiciary from the legislative and executive powers. The independence of the judiciary was further affirmed by three fundamental pieces of legislation that the National Assembly had adopted in 2014: the law on the organization of the court, the law on the status of judges and prosecutors, and the law on the Supreme Council of the Magistracy.

Those three laws, together with the Constitution, safeguarded judicial independence and protected judges from political interference, stressed Mr. Chealy. The law on the organization of the court had introduced the specialized courts with jurisdiction on labour and commercial disputes to help improve the quality and efficiency of the judiciary in fulfilling its adjudicative functions. The regional Court of Appeal would start operating in April 2020 to improve access to justice and reduce the backlog of cases.

The recent legitimate law enforcement actions against some law-breaking politicians, political parties, media outlets and non-governmental organizations had been politicized under the banner of human rights and democracy, Mr. Chealy said, adding that some countries had criticized those measures without due consideration of the facts and the law. They had pressured the Government to interfere into the affairs of the court, in clear violation of democratic principles of separation of powers that the Constitution guaranteed.

Reiterating the Government’s firm commitment to the setting up of a national human rights institution, Mr. Chealy said that the progress in the drafting of the law, which civil society organizations had started in 2006 with the approval of Prime Minister, was too slow and far from satisfactory. To avoid further delays, the Prime Minister had recently instructed the Cambodian Human Rights Committee to take the lead in this task. The first draft of the law would be ready for consultation with stakeholders, including civil society, in 2020.

There were only Khmer/Cambodians living in Cambodia. Most people who had come from Khmer Krom area, which was the lower part of the Mekong Delta that was currently in south Viet Nam, had received Cambodian identification documents. The Government did not collect the statistics on the holders of identity cards that could indicate who were Khmer Krom or Khmer Leu. The identification card contained only one category, which was Khmer.

By June 2018, the General Department of Identification had issued over 9 million identity cards. To receive one, individuals must satisfy all the criteria: be 15 or older, have either a Cambodian birth certificate, court order or official document indicating that the person was born of Cambodian parents or a Royal Decree granting the citizenship, and a family or residence book. In the absence of official documents identifying claimants as Khmer or born to Cambodian parents, the ability to speak Khmer did not mean that the person was a Cambodian citizen, Mr. Chealy emphasized.

Vietnamese nationals currently residing in Cambodia not in accordance with the immigration law had acknowledged they were Vietnamese. The 2015-2017 survey had identified more than 48,000 Vietnamese families that resided in the country, with a total of 180,690 individuals. The children born to those parents were considered Vietnamese and thus were not stateless. According to the 2018 law on nationality, only a child born to foreign parents who were born and living legally in Cambodia was entitled to Khmer nationality.

The right of indigenous peoples to land was guaranteed by the Constitution and the 2001 land law. Indigenous families occupied and used more land than the general Khmer families: the average size of land per indigenous household was 10 hectares, while for the Khmer families it was 2.6 hectares. The Government was in the process of registering the indigenous communities. Communal land titling registration was being done on a voluntary basis, meaning that the representatives of indigenous communities had to apply to the relevant authorities to start the process. By May 2018, communal land titles had been delivered to 2,335 households in 24 indigenous communities.

In conclusion, Mr. Chealy said that each and every person was legally accountable not because of who they were but because of the offences they committed. Cambodia took note of the Committee’s statements and concerns, but would not accept politically driven recommendations and statements that were based on biases with complete disregard of facts and of the national situation.

Questions by the Committee Co-Rapporteurs

DIABY BAKARI SIDIKI, Committee Rapporteur for Cambodia, asked the delegation about the status of the promise it had made years ago to ratify article 14 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

The definition of racial discrimination contained in the laws was not aligned with the Convention, the Rapporteur remarked, and asked when Cambodia would adopt a specific anti-discrimination law and a national policy to combat racial discrimination. He also asked when Cambodia would conduct a survey on the magnitude of racial discrimination in the country and how it would implement a public policy to promote equality in the society in which ethnic and racial identities sometimes met, but at other times clashed.

Cambodia recognized 24 indigenous peoples and had in place a specific programme for their socio-economic development. The Rapporteur asked about the schooling and drop-out rates of ethnic minorities compared to the general population, and the implementation of the national health plan for indigenous peoples, who were deeply attached to their traditions, including traditional medicine. Nineteen indigenous communities had obtained collective land titles - how were those being distributed among the recognized groups of indigenous peoples? How were the rights of indigenous peoples to land protected in the Government decisions to attribute land for commercial purposes and what consultation mechanisms were in place?

The Committee was very concerned about the reported violence against people of Vietnamese origin. What was being done to counter this, to promote ethno-religious diversity of the country, and to protect all from discrimination and violence?

The Government seemed particularly harsh in their treatment of Montagnards, an ethnic Christian group which fled Viet Nam and lived in the mountains in central Cambodia. Many had been returned to Viet Nam and they seemed discriminated against in the recognition of refugee status. The Shan people, the Muslim minority in Cambodia, also seemed to upset the Government, said the Rapporteur, asking when the Government would reopen the radio station, the only one that transmitted four hours of programming in the Shan language.

What were the reasons behind the considerable delay in the establishment of a national human rights institution?

The Rapporteur then turned to the situation of human rights defenders in Cambodia and asked about concrete measures the Government was taking to broaden the democratic space so that human rights defenders and civil society organizations could actively participate in an inclusive debate. The Committee was very concerned about the October 2017 circular which required prior notification of activities of civil society organizations. When would the country move away from the regime of prior authorisation and align itself with international standards?

Other serious concerns related to the use of excessive force in dispersing peaceful demonstrations, the arrest of human rights defenders – nearly 100 had been arrested in 2019 - and the guarantees of fair trial for them.

The July 2018 elections had exacerbated tensions and led to an increase of human rights violations, especially against people of Vietnamese origin, the Khmer Krom. They were at risk of becoming stateless because they could not obtain national identity cards, and were targets of growing hate speech, including online.

ALEXEI AVTONOMOV, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Cambodia, took positive note of the salary raise of judges and prosecutors in 2016 and 2019, a step taken to fight judicial corruption. How many complaints of racial discrimination had been lodged and what were their outcomes?

The national action plan on the suppression of human trafficking and sexual exploitation was in place. The Government had started monitoring places of prostitution and had informed 700 business owners on issues related to sexual exploitation. Despite the efforts, Cambodia was a country of destination for sex tourism and sexual exploitation, while rates of internal trafficking were of concern. The Committee was concerned about trafficking in children and urged the Government to strengthen the capacity to suppress trafficking in persons.

Taking note of the national education plan 2014-2018 which strove for equality, quality and fairness in education, the Co-Rapporteur asked how it benefitted ethnic, indigenous, migrant and children of African origin.

Questions by Committee Experts

GUN KUT, Committee Rapporteur for Follow-up to Concluding Observations, recalled that the Committee had adopted concluding observations on Cambodia in 2010, which had identified the following for follow-up: the establishment of a national human rights institution in accordance with the Paris Principles; to empower ethnic minorities to possess, control and use their communal rights; to fully protect vulnerable groups from violence in the exercise of their rights; and to ensure that each Khmer Krom was able to obtain an identity document under the same requirements as other citizens. The interim report had been expected within a year, but had not been submitted. Mr. Kut reiterated the importance that the Committee accorded to the follow-up procedure and the punctuality.

Cambodia had recognized 24 indigenous peoples and their lands, another Expert remarked, and asked whether the land adjudicated to indigenous peoples was a wasteland, a land under State control that was redistributed to indigenous peoples, or their ancestral lands. Which legal regime governed territories that were given to indigenous peoples for itinerant farming? The Expert also asked about the consultations with indigenous peoples and whether it was in line with the International Labour Organization conventions.

The delegation was asked about the place of indigenous peoples in the Cambodian society, in particular the extent in which they were represented in the civil service, administration and the judiciary. What percentage of the prison population was indigenous? Cambodia had said it recognized not only indigenous peoples’ territories, but their language, culture and lifestyles as well – how did this look like in practice?

Cambodia seemed very jealous about granting nationality, another Expert remarked, and asked whether all indigenous peoples in Cambodia enjoyed the right to nationality on an equal basis with others in the society. One of the requirements for nationality was that an individual was born to Khmer parents – what was the right to nationality of a child born to one foreign and one Khmer parent? Could the nationality be obtained by marriage?

Was it possible for ethno-religious groups to practice their religion publicly?

An Expert congratulated Cambodia on the continuous economic growth of some seven per cent per year, which had largely contributed to the reduction of poverty from 53 per cent in 2004 to 11.5 per cent in 2015.

As far as the judiciary was concerned, Experts asked who the Supreme Council of Magistracy was responsible to. Welcoming measures to prevent corruption in the judiciary, they asked about the status of the anti-corruption unit that had the mandate to investigate perpetrators – was it a police unit, a prosecutorial unit, or a court?

The delegation was asked to explain the use of concepts of race, ethnicity and indigenous peoples, and whether there were some racial or ethnic groups that were not indigenous.

The northern part of the country, where many indigenous groups from the Khmer Ley lived, was the place of large land grabs for purposes of logging and other commercial activities. In other parts of the country too, the occupation of indigenous land was strongly felt as companies – both national and foreign – expropriated land for commercial and profit purposes. The human costs of those land grabs were rather high, especially for indigenous peoples – displacement and loss of livelihood, culture and identity. What was being done to assess the situation and what remedial measures were being taken?

Ninety per cent of the population in Cambodia belonged to the majority. But for this Committee, the focus of attention was the remaining 10 per cent, the minority population – indigenous peoples, ethnic minorities and foreigners. What special measures were being taken for those minority populations in development plans?

The Committee commended Cambodia for acknowledging the corruption in the country as not every State did so publicly. What were the main axes of the fight against corruption?

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation acknowledged Cambodia’s long absence before the Committee and said that Cambodia was a very good student, it only missed classes.

The terms Khmer and Cambodian were interchangeable, but Khmer referred to a race. The terms Khmer Krom and Khmer Ley did not refer to a race, but to a geographical origin of the population in Cambodia: Krom meant “below” or “low” and Ley meant “above”.

The thrust of the country’s development plan was on rural areas and education was one of its flagships.

Two strategic policies arose from the Sustainable Development Goal four on quality education that aimed to ensure inclusive, accessible and affordable quality education. An inclusive education policy was in place for students with disabilities and other vulnerable groups, namely ethnic and indigenous students, as was the national action plan for multilingual education 2019-2023. This action plan was aligned with international instruments, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the 2030 Agenda, as well as the Constitution and the laws of Cambodia and its national development strategy.

One of the outcomes of the 2006 national human rights conference had been the request for a law on a national human rights institution. With the Government’s approval, the drafting team had been set up and was composed of representatives of non-governmental organizations, the Government and the Cambodian Human Rights Committee. However, in all this time, the process had not progressed. To avoid further delays, the Government had taken on its responsibility and had tasked the Cambodian Human Rights Committee to lead the drafting process.

The zero draft was almost done and after the new year, the first consultations with stakeholders would take place. The setting up of the institution was not a problem, but its accreditation could be and Cambodia wanted to avoid a situation in which it had a non-accredited national human rights institution.

According to the Nationality Law, a child obtained Cambodian citizenship if either of the parents was Khmer.

The anti-corruption unit had been set up as an independent entity several years ago, with the mandate to fight corruption in the public and private sectors. It had the power to investigate and arrest individuals whom it handed to court for trial. This unit was another success story in Cambodia.

Civil society was an indispensable part of the Cambodian society, said SOKKHOEURN AN, Permanent Representative of Cambodia to the United Nations Office at Geneva. Cambodia was home to over 5,000 civil society organizations, a clear evidence of the open civic space in the country. To further enhance civil society freedoms, the Government had annulled the requirement of three-days prior notification for non-governmental organizations’ events. It held consultative forums with civil society organizations, the last of which had taken place in August 2019. An inter-ministerial working group had been set up to address the concerns raised about the law on associations and non-governmental organizations. The working group had met with civil society representatives in November 2019 to discuss the revision of the law in response to their concerns.

In the preparation of the report to the Committee, the Government had consulted with civil society organizations and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Government had also held a consultative workshop on the draft report, to which 13 national and international non-governmental organizations working in the field of human rights had been invited. Thus, the report presented to the Committee had been prepared with the participation and contribution of many stakeholders, whose voice was heard in an inclusive process.

The Ethnic Minority Development Unit was responsible for all affairs relevant to indigenous peoples. Cambodia defined “ethnic minority” as a group of Khmer nationals who had their own distinct religion, customs, language and culture and lived among the Khmer, the core nationals. “Indigenous peoples” were genetically distinct groups of people who lived in Cambodia and had culture, language and traditions that were different from the Khmer. Cambodia recognized 24 races of indigenous peoples; they lived in 15 provinces and at 220,000 strong, represented 1.4 per cent of the population.

Three ministries were involved in the recognition of land ownership for indigenous communities. First, their representatives had to request the identification recognition from the provincial government. The provincial authority would send a letter to the Ministry of Rural Development, which then issued an identification recognition certificate to the requesting indigenous community. After the Ministry of Interior authorized the certificate, the Ministry of Land Management Urban Planning and Construction issued the land title.

Indigenous peoples occupied more land than the general Khmer population, or Cambodian families. Land allocated to indigenous peoples was agricultural, residential and ancestral land and it supported the indigenous lifestyle, culture and traditions.

Many laws and policies had been adopted to ensure the effective management of indigenous communities. Those included the 2009 national policy for the development of indigenous peoples and the directive for its implementation which aimed to ensure the multiculturality of the country; the 2001 Land Law which aimed to protect land tenure and the right to real estate; the sub-decree 83 of 2009 on the registration procedure of land titling for indigenous communities; and the guidance of the provision of land titles to indigenous communities. Furthermore, the Government was developing the strategic plan for the development of indigenous peoples 2020-2024, in cooperation with various Government entities.

The delegation highlighted difficulties in reaching all ethnic minorities, some of whom lived in remote areas or in forests and moved around, and reiterated that the Government was taking care of indigenous peoples. The Ministry of Culture and Religious Affairs maintained the list with names and numbers of ethnic minorities, including those who could not be reached at the moment.

According to the law on non-governmental organizations, a legally-recognized organization could be formed by three people alone.

The delegation said that when 20 Uighurs had illegally entered the country, they broke the immigration law, which was why the Government had sent them to their home country. Their repatriation, therefore, was the implementation of the immigration law and not discrimination against this group.

The Government had worked with the United Nations Refugee Agency to determine the refugee status of the 197 Vietnamese Montagnards who had arrived in Cambodia. Seven had obtained refugee status and had been resettled to the Philippines in 2017, 104 had voluntarily returned to their country of origin, 57 had escaped from the holding camp, and 31, together with two new-born babies, were still living in the country. Cambodia encouraged the delegation of the European Union to visit the site.

Cambodia’s firm commitment to eliminating racial discrimination and fighting human rights violations was borne from its past. That was why the country was usually the first among Asian countries to ratify international human rights treaties, which became part of the national legal order, as stipulated by the Constitution. Courts could use and apply international law. The Criminal Code in articles 265 to 270 defined racial discrimination and the Government had included the drafting of a specific law on racial discrimination in its legal programme.

The Government was working with the European Union to develop a legal aid policy, which would strive to ensure that everyone in Cambodia had access to legal aid, without any discrimination. That was why the policy would focus on ensuring that no one was left behind, especially indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities and other people living in remote areas. The Government was providing $ 22,000 per year to the Bar Association to assist people throughout the country to access justice.

Cambodia had a zero tolerance policy to corruption, the delegation stressed. The Anti-Corruption Unit was an independent body with special powers as defined by the 2010 anti-corruption law. While the Head of the Unit was a judicial police officer and had the powers of the prosecutor, the Unit did not have the power to try people – this was the task of the court. In addition, the National Council against Corruption had adopted the anti-corruption strategy for the 2011-2015 period and also for the 2015-2020 period.

A foreigner wishing to marry a Cambodian woman had to be under the age of 50 and had to have an income of $ 2,500 per month. The delegation explained that those requirements had been introduced to protect Cambodian women from exploitation and trafficking in persons. Following further consultations, the age requirement had been deleted but the income-related one was kept.

After the genocide, the education system had been in complete crisis: the infrastructure had been destroyed, many teachers and educated persons had been killed, and even more had fled the country. That was why the education policy in the 1980s was that literate persons taught the semi-literate, and semi-literate persons taught the illiterate. The Constitution stipulated the right of all to nine years of basic education and today, more than three million students were in preschools and schools in Cambodia. The reform of the higher education system was ongoing.

The proportion of children under the age of five who were in early childhood education and care had increased from 59 per cent in 2013-2014 to 68 per cent in 2017-2018. The school enrolment rate was 98 per cent and the completion rate was 86 per cent, which were both above the targets set out in the Sustainable Development Goal four on quality education.

The national policy for the development of indigenous peoples contained a support programme for indigenous children and youth. The Ministry of Education had developed the second multi-lingual education action plan 2019-2023, implemented in mountainous regions where most ethnic minorities lived. The plan was aligned with the strategic plan for education and the 10 targets in the Sustainable Development Goal four.

Educating children about the past was one of the ways in which Cambodia dealt with transitional justice; genocide education was integrated in the curriculum and contributed to the national reconciliation at the grassroots and community levels.

The second approach to transitional justice was criminal prosecution. The Extraordinary Chambers of the Court of Cambodia was a hybrid court set up by Cambodia and the United Nations to prosecute senior Khmer Rouge leaders. To date, three senior leaders had been prosecuted: the head of the genocidal killing machine, the former Head of State, and the President of the National Assembly of the Khmer Rouge. Several programmes had been put in place to preserve the memory and support the victims, including the community peace building centre and the victim foundation.

The transmission of nationality from a Khmer citizen to his or her child was automatic. Nationality could also be obtained through marriage and through a nationalization process, when the requirements defined in the law were fulfilled.

Concluding Remarks

DIABY BAKARI SIDIKI, Committee Rapporteur for Cambodia, in his concluding remarks, expressed confidence in Cambodia’s ability to fully implement the provisions of the Convention. He welcomed the reforms taken and encouraged the Government to continue to pursue them.

CHET CHEALY, Vice President of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, concluded by thanking the Committee for helping the delegation to better see the issues and reiterated the readiness to continue to cooperate with the Committee. Some of the comments the Experts had made during the dialogue were not relevant, most likely because they did not understand the situation well. The level of complexity of the issues Cambodia was dealing with went beyond the perspective of those who sat in air-conditioned rooms. Peace was still fragile and that was why, strengthening peace and stability was the absolute priority. The Government took human rights and democracy seriously and believed that those would follow economic development and increased levels of education.

NOUREDDINE AMIR, Committee Chairperson, thanked the delegation for the quality of the dialogue and agreed that peace was indeed a fragile issue.



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