Cambodia: Regression of UN freedom of expression commitments

Cambodia: Regression of UN freedom of expression commitments - Civic Space

Photo by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights


This Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mid-term report by ARTICLE 19 and PEN America provides an update on the implementation of third cycle UPR recommendations made to Cambodia regarding freedom of expression, information, assembly, association, digital rights, and the protection of human rights defenders. The report gives an overview of how Cambodia’s human rights situation has declined further over the past two years and makes recommendations to the government of Cambodia on how to effectively implement its third cycle UPR recommendations over the next two years.

Since Cambodia’s third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2019, the situation for the rights to freedom of expression, information, assembly, and association has significantly deteriorated. In August 2021, Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, stated that ‘regression of the democratic space and civil and political rights and freedoms, interlinked with the monopolization of power, has emerged as the most ostensible longitudinal issue.’

Two years since Cambodia received 198 UPR recommendations to improve its human rights protections, the government has failed to meaningfully implement the vast majority of recommendations. In particular, the government has largely failed to implement recommendations on freedom of expression, information, assembly, association, digital rights, and the protection of human rights defenders. Rather, the situation has further regressed. Over the last two years, the government of Cambodia has taken decisive steps to suppress critical and dissenting voices, the independent media, civil society organisations, environmental activists, and peaceful protesters.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the protection of fundamental freedoms has worsened as authorities imposed unduly restrictive policies and laws to the detriment of public participation and civic space. Further repressive legislation is being advanced by the government and could impede freedom of expression even further.

Independent journalists, environmental activists, and peaceful protesters have faced physical violence, threats, judicial harassment, and imprisonment. Government restrictions on the freedom of expression—often presented by the government as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic—have far exceeded those permissible under international human rights law. This systematic attack on public discourse and dissenting voices is eroding the confidence of Cambodians in their ability to safely exercise their rights and encouraging widespread self-censorship.

In a submission ahead of Cambodia’s third UPR, ARTICLE 19 and PEN America made recommendations relevant to the following areas of concern:

  • Legal framework for freedom of expression
  • Digital rights
  • Media freedom
  • Threats to human rights defenders, including environmental activists
  • Freedom of association and the right to participate in public affairs

This mid-term report will cover these five key areas and two additional issues: freedom of peaceful assembly, which declined steeply since Cambodia’s last UPR, and the right to political association, which is especially relevant with commune and national elections expected in 2022 and 2023, respectively.

While 56 recommendations were made by 31 states covering these topics, there has been minimal progress on implementation. Much more still needs to be done to stop rights abuses in these areas. In this mid-term report ARTICLE 19 and PEN America review recommendations made to Cambodia during its third UPR and any relevant progress or regression over the last two years.

Read the report