Rampant illegal logging and unchecked urban development violated the human rights of Indigenous peoples and the urban poor. Freedom of expression and association remained severely restricted and unfair trials of political opposition members and supporters continued. Authorities arrested, detained and assaulted striking workers. Despite some steps to tackle human trafficking it remained widespread. The right to adequate housing was not protected and human rights abuses were linked to microfinance loans.
The government crackdown on independent media, civil society organizations and political opposition that began in 2017 continued throughout 2022. Independent observers raised concerns about irregularities in the June local elections in which the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won 80% of the seats. It was contested by the Candlelight Party which is comprised of some former members of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was banned by a court order in 2017. Cambodia’s NDC remained unchanged since 2020 at a 50% reduction of historical emissions by 2030.
Large-scale illegal logging of protected forests continued with severe consequences for Indigenous peoples whose livelihoods and culture depend on them.1 Indigenous activists reported receiving death threats from authorities and a rise in gun possession amongst illegal loggers throughout the year. In August, following a public outcry, the government halted logging in Phnom Tamao forest, but only after hundreds of hectares had been cleared.
The destruction of lakes and wetlands, especially around the capital Phnom Penh, for private development also continued, resulting in increased flood risks, and loss of housing and livelihoods for surrounding communities, where many people had precarious incomes or were living in poverty.
The sale and gifting by the government of Boeung Tamok, one of the last remaining lakes in Phnom Penh, to private companies and individuals for draining and development continued. In July, Cambodia’s Supreme Court upheld convictions and suspended parts of prison sentences for “incitement to commit a felony” against three environmental activists from the campaign group, Mother Nature Cambodia. The three, who were arrested in 2020 for protesting against the privatization of the lake, remained under restrictive probation conditions. In September, the authorities dismantled sheds used by local fishermen to make way for the Boeung Tamok development.
Freedom of expression
On 16 August, members of the prime minister’s bodyguard unit detained five journalists along with four activists from a social justice group, Khmer Thavrak, who were documenting the destruction resulting from the illegal logging in Phnom Tamao forest. One of the journalists was reportedly hit in the face while filming the arrest. All nine were released without charge, but were required to sign a document admitting that they flew a drone without permission.
On 3 February, a supporter of the banned CNRP, Veourn Veasna, was found guilty of “incitement to commit felony” and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in relation to a poem he had posted on Facebook that was critical of Hun Sen.
Freedom of association
Judicial harassment of members and supporters of opposition political parties continued in 2022. The trial on charges of treason of the leader of the CNRP, Kem Sokha, which began in 2020, was ongoing at the end of 2022, with the verdict scheduled for 3 March 2023. Mass trials of another 115 CNRP members and supporters took place during the year in which 67 people were convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from five to 18 years. UN human rights experts described the trials as “deeply flawed” and called for all convictions to be reviewed.
Five members of the Candlelight Party were arbitrarily detained or imprisoned during the year. On 7 September, the party’s vice president, Son Chhay, was convicted of defamation, fined KHR 17 million (about USD 4,098) and ordered to pay the CPP KHR 3 billion (approximately USD 727,132) in compensation, after questioning the fairness of the June elections.
Police arrested and physically assaulted striking workers and union members who were calling for higher wages and the reinstatement of dismissed workers following mass layoffs by the NagaWorld Casino in Phnom Penh in late 2021.
In January, authorities arrested 28 members of the Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld (LRSU). The LRSU president, Chhim Sithar, and nine others were charged with “incitement to commit a felony”. All 10 of those charged were later released on bail, but the case remained pending at the end of the year. The 18 others were released without charge after signing pledges that they would not participate in further strike action. Chhim Sithar was rearrested on 26 November for breaching bail conditions that neither she nor her lawyers were aware of.2
On 5 February, six LRSU members were arrested as they left a Covid-19 testing site, following a government order that all those involved in the NagaWorld strike action should be tested. Three were later charged with “obstruction of Covid-19 measures” under Covid-19 regulations introduced in 2021, which carry a prison sentence of up to 20 years. They were released on bail but still faced charges at the end of the year.
On 11 August, police punched and kicked protestors outside the NagaWorld Casino, injuring at least 17 women, with one hospitalized as a result. On 12 September, police hit striking workers and union members with walkie-talkies as they attempted to submit a petition to the Ministry of Labour calling for a resolution to the dispute and to withdraw accusations that Yang Sophorn, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, was acting illegally by backing the strike.
On 30 September, NagaWorld filed criminal complaints against four LRSU members for trespassing, aggravated intentional damage and unlawful confinement.
On 9 September, the Ministry of Justice announced the establishment of a taskforce to coordinate investigations and prosecutions of those responsible for human trafficking of foreign workers to Cambodia. Raids by the authorities in Phnom Penh and the town of Sihanoukville resulted in the rescue of hundreds of trafficked workers.
According to media and other reports, many more trafficked people, including children, were held in “slave compounds” and forced to work in cyber and other scams. Rescued victims reported being subjected to rape, beatings and other physical violence by guards. Some died while trying to escape. Those arrested for involvement in human trafficking were mainly low-level suspects.
On 30 August, the Preah Sihanouk Provincial Court sentenced Chen Baorong, head of an anti-trafficking NGO, the Cambodia-China Charity Team, and two other men, Chen Xiaohua and Tan Xiaomei, to two years in prison each. Their prosecution appeared to be in retaliation for negative international publicity about the rescue of a trafficking victim who alleged that those detaining him had “harvested” his blood. Their sentences were reduced on appeal to 10 months on 21 December.
Economic, social and cultural rights
In April, the Compliance Adviser Ombudsman of the International Finance Corporation (IFC), an international body that addresses complaints by people affected by IFC-supported projects, agreed to review a complaint filed by local NGOs on behalf of 19 individuals, including Indigenous people, alleging human rights abuses, including coerced land sales, forced migration and child labour, arising from lack of due diligence and inadequate supervision of loans by six Cambodian microfinance corporations and banks.
Right to housing
Lack of land titles meant that thousands of people remained at risk of eviction without access to compensation under national law. According to the land and housing rights NGO, Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, 1,507 households had been forcibly evicted since 2020 because they were unable to demonstrate ownership of the land on which they lived.