Volker Türk, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed concern on Wednesday over the conduct of Cambodia’s recent general elections, held on 23 July.
Türk voiced regret over the severely restricted democratic space that negatively impacted Cambodians’ rights to participate fully and equally in the electoral process.
He highlighted restrictive laws and policies that hindered the registration and participation of opposition political parties and candidates.
Opposition parties, trade unions, NGOs, and media were subjected to criminal and other legal processes, threats, intimidation, and occasional physical attacks, he noted.
“Cambodia has witnessed a constant shrinkage of democratic space in recent years, undermining fundamental freedoms and the right to participate in public affairs,” lamented Türk.
The Commissioner pointed out numerous restrictions and reprisals aimed at opposition political parties, activists, media members, and others. These appear designed to inhibit political campaigning and hinder the exercise of freedoms essential for free and fully participatory elections.
In the run-up to the elections, the National Election Committee disqualified two prominent opposition political parties, including the Candlelight Party.
Nearing election day, the government telecoms regulator instructed internet service providers to block the social media accounts of three media organizations deemed critical of the Government.
“I am concerned that these restrictions and other intimidating measures created a chilling effect, depriving people of credible news and information sources needed to make informed choices in exercising their democratic rights,” stated the High Commissioner.
He further emphasized the importance of a robust, inclusive democracy that respects a plurality of voices and opinions for ensuring the protection of human rights and fostering peaceful social and economic development.
Türk urged the Cambodian Government to rectify deficiencies, address shortcomings, and initiate dialogue with all political parties and civil society actors to create an enabling and inclusive civic space for all Cambodians.
Moreover, he urged the government to implement additional measures to enhance the inclusion and participation of marginalized groups, including women, indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, and youth, in a bid to foster a more inclusive and representative democracy.
The 23 July 2023 elections, labelled by the international community and civil society as neither free nor fair, resulted in the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) securing 95% of the parliamentary seats.
This election outcome was anticipated, given that the Candlelight Party, the only viable opposition party, was debarred from the elections in May, leading to a lack of genuine electoral competition.
In an unprecedented move, the government criminalized actions interpreted as attempts to boycott the election or spoil ballot papers.
Four representatives from the Candlelight Party were arrested on charges of spoiling ballots, inciting people to destroy ballots, and ‘disturbing the peace’.
Similarly, 17 other opposition activists and politicians were fined and barred from holding elected office for 20 years.
Post-election intimidation persisted. CamboJA News reported the arrest of a former official of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Chao Veasna, who was named in a Telegram group allegedly discussing spoiling ballots.
The group contained 44 members, all of whom had their personal identities, including phone numbers, publicly exposed.
These series of arrests were primarily enabled by the recently amended election law, passed just before the elections. The law penalizes individuals who interfere with or disrupt an election, including actions such as urging others not to register to vote, not to vote, or to spoil ballot papers.