With escalating worries from Cambodia’s civil society, media, and human rights defenders about the country’s shrinking civic space, the United Nations Country Team in Cambodia has launched a project aimed at bolstering this space.
The Australian Government-funded AUD1 million (approximately USD717,000) Enhancing and Protecting Civic Space and People’s Participation project will run for two years and seeks to provide ongoing support to media and human rights defenders, advance civic space and empower government stakeholders to engage and address human rights violations and abuses.
Civil society and media advocates met with United Nations Resident Coordinator Pauline Tamesis and Australia’s Ambassador to Cambodia Pablo Kang to speak directly about their challenges and needs.
“You all know better than I, that individuals who stand up for the rights of others pay the price,” Ms Tamesis told the civil society and media representatives present.
“It’s not easy to do human rights or advocacy work anywhere around the world and it was truly inspiring to hear directly from passionate changemakers about their journeys and how they are in need of the type of support this project is aiming to offer,” she said.
The United Nations Secretary-General, in his annual report on the role and achievements of OHCHR-Cambodia, identified concerns around the shrinking civic space in the country.
“We urge Cambodia to do more to protect the rights of activists to speak, to express themselves, to associate and to assemble in protest freely. The exercise of these fundamental freedoms is even more important in a year where Cambodia is the ASEAN Chair and the region looks to this country as a role model,” she said.
Ambassador Kang said the COVID-19 pandemic had exacerbated existing challenges for the civic space in Cambodia.
“While we commend the Cambodian Government for its response to COVID-19 to date, we urge it to ensure that civil society actors are able to fully exercise their fundamental freedoms of speech, assembly and association. The active engagement of civil society is critical to protect human rights and achieve equitable and sustainable development in Cambodia.”
“By launching this project, the UN and Australia want to convey that when you stand for human rights, you do not stand alone. A healthy civil society and a free, independent media is crucial for any society to truly thrive. At the heart of this project, is the UN Secretary General’s Call to Action, which places civil society at the centre of building back better from the pandemic and global efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals,” Ms Tamesis said.
Implemented jointly by UN Human Rights and UNESCO in Cambodia, the project establishes targeted activities to halt threats to civil society and is a response to a needs assessment that showed the greatest causes for concern in Cambodia are for safety of journalists and activists in rural areas and digital spaces.
UNESCO Country Representative to Cambodia, Sardar Umar Alam, highlighted that “the partnership with OHCHR and the Government of Australia is a big step in the implementation of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity”. He explained that through the project “UNESCO will facilitate the dialogue between reporters and the authorities to establish mechanisms to better protect journalists during the exercise of their profession, which is critical for the protection of freedom of expression in Cambodia”.
Cambodian Center for Human Rights executive director Chak Sopheap welcomed the United Nations project and support from the Australian Embassy to protect human rights defenders, advance civic space, and encourage the Government to address human rights violations in Cambodia.
“Civil society actors should be encouraged, praised, and protected, instead of being hampered and targeted. With Cambodia’s democracy at stake, our solidarity, help and structure should be put at the disposal of civil society to ensure that activists are supported and protected.”
Cambodian Center for Independent Media media director Mr Ith Sothoeuth said more support was needed as journalists were under increasing pressure, according to a recent CCIM study.
“Physical and psychological harassment and threats amongst independent journalists are increasing.”