Human Rights / News

Al Jazeera: UN Censures Cambodia Rights Record as Garment Worker Dissent Squashed

The U.N. Human Rights Council held a meeting Tuesday in Geneva to review Cambodia’s human rights record, as activists and rights groups condemn an ongoing, violent government crackdown on dissent. The council criticized Cambodia’s harsh treatment of protesters and pushed Cambodia to pass laws to ensure that political freedoms are protected.

The U.N. council’s 47 member states met with Cambodian officials in Switzerland to assess the country’s progress in implementing a set of 91 recommendations focusing on judicial reform, land rights and international treaties put to Cambodia by the Human Rights Council in 2009. Every U.N. member must regularly undergo a Universal Periodic Review of its human rights record.

The review comes at the end of violent month of protests. On Jan. 4, the Cambodian government banned protests in the capital, Phnom Penh, after a violent crackdown on garment worker protests a day earlier in which at least four people were killed and dozens were wounded.

The killings effectively put an end to a strike that started on Dec. 24 in Cambodia’s largest formal-sector employer.

Among the issues raised by the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva were “recent attacks on activists, union members and journalists and violations of freedom of assembly and association” and the “recent ban on peaceful assemblies.”

The body recommended that Cambodia adopt legislative measures to “promote the enjoyment of freedom of expression in order to protect opposition party members, journalists and human rights defenders from arbitrary arrests and to lift all restrictions to peaceful demonstrations,” the U.N.’s media brief read.

Cambodia’s representative from the Ministry of Interior defended the protest ban as “very necessary,” the Phnom Penh Post reported.

Cambodia’s national Human Rights Committee vice-chairman Mak Sambath told the assembly in Geneva that the government “give(s) rights, but the rights should not affect the normal living of other people.” Sambath added that while freedom of expression should be respected, it could not come at the expense of “others’ dignity (and) the good tradition of society,” according to local media.

Emails sent by Al Jazeera to Cambodian government officials were not answered at the time of publication.

But human rights groups and activists condemned the crackdown on dissent.

“(Prime Minister) Hun Sen’s government violates human rights on a daily basis by violently preventing the opposition, trade unions, activists and others from gathering to demand political change,” Juliette de Rivero, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a press release.

HRW said the most recent example of government repression took place on Jan. 26 when armed security forces and organized plainclothes vigilantes used firearms, brass-knuckles, slingshots and truncheons to disperse a gathering of trade unionists at Freedom Park in the capital.

HM Cambodia Khmer-American artist Kat Eng sews dollar bills together to bring attention to the plight of Cambodian garment workers on Jan. 17 in Times Square, New York City.
Kyle Depew

As the meeting took place in Geneva, back in Phnom Pehn a small group of activists gathered outside the U.S. embassy calling for the release of 23 garment workers arrested during the mass protests of Jan. 2 and Jan. 3.

But the protest ban was enforced on the activists when “security Guards, wearing full-faced black helmets, violently detained 11 of the marchers,” the Cambodia Daily reported.

The U.S. expressed “deep concerns” about the protest ban in Phnom Penh and told the Cambodian delegation in Geneva that it should be lifted to give citizens the freedom to assemble “without fear of retribution,” local media reported.

Earlier in January, another type of protest took place half-way around the world in New York City in Times Square.

On Jan. 17, Brooklyn-based Khmer-American artist Kat Eng, dressed as a factory worker, sat on the sidewalk in front of an H&M retail store — which sources some of its clothing from Cambodian garment factories.

Eng sewed dollar bills to bring light to the fact that Cambodian garment workers make less than $3 per day.

The activist said her silent performance was also a response to the violent government crackdown on the workers’ protests in early January.

“The murder of at least four people was an unacceptable act of state violence, and I personally had to respond,” Eng told Al Jazeera. “What they’re fighting against is a system of exploitation — it’s important to know that their labor, their health and their lives are the real price of cheap clothing.”

The Wall Street Journal reported that H&M, along with other retailers that source from Cambodia, had expressed concern over the crackdown on garment workers.

Eng said that the response to her performance varied, with some making it clear that they did not approve of her destruction of money to make her point, and others instead taking the time to sit down next to her and asked her questions.

“The thing that bothers me about consumer culture is the apathy, especially in this day and age when we have access to information. It’s a choice to ignore the reality that sweatshops do exist,” Eng said.

 

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