Freedom in the World
You are here
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Cambodia's civil liberties rating improved from 6 to 5 due to modest trends toward improved labor and press rights, as well as an increasingly active civil society.
A decade after an internationally brokered deal ended Cambodia's civil war, foreign governments and international agencies expressed concern in 2001 that the government had not taken advantage of the peace to improve the country's poor human rights record. International donors pledged more than $600 million in aid, but urged the Southeast Asian nation's autocratic prime minister, Hun Sen, to improve governance and tackle corruption. The United Nations, meanwhile, said that many candidates for local elections scheduled for February 2002 were facing harassment and intimidation.
After winning independence from France in 1953, Cambodia was ruled in succession by King Norodom Sihanouk, the U.S.-backed Lon Nol regime in the early 1970s, and the Chinese-supported Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. Under the Maoist Khmer Rouge, at least 1.7 million of Cambodia's 7 million people died by execution, disease, overwork, or starvation. Vietnam invaded in December 1978 and installed a Communist government in January 1979 under the Khmer People's Revolutionary Party (KPRP). During the 1980s, the KPRP government fought the allied armies of Sihanouk, the Khmer Rouge, and a former premier, Son Sann. An internationally brokered peace deal signed in 1991 formally ended the war and put the impoverished country on the path to multiparty elections, although the Khmer Rouge continued to wage a low-grade insurgency from the jungle.
In Cambodia's first free parliamentary elections in 1993, the royalist United Front for an Independent, Neutral, and Free Cambodia (FUNCINPEC), headed by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, a Sihanouk son, defeated the Cambodian People's Party (CPP), the successor to the KPRP. Following the vote, CPP leader Hun Sen, a Khmer Rouge defector, used his control over the army to force FUNCINPEC into forming a coalition government. Backed by Cambodia's security forces, Hun Sen harassed and intimidated FUNCINPEC members, opposition groups, and the press in the mid-1990s before ousting Ranariddh in a bloody July 1997 coup. By then the two leaders were locked in an open power struggle, each trying to recruit allies from the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge itself was a spent force within a year of the coup following the death of its leader, Pol Pot, and the defections of top commanders.
Since the coup, Hun Sen has faced few real threats to his power, while the end of the Khmer Rouge insurgency has brought peace to Cambodia for the first time since the 1960s. The CPP won a flawed election on June 26, 1998, that appeared to be held primarily to convince donors to resume aid they had suspended after the coup. The CPP won 64 seats; FUNCINPEC, 43; and the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), led by Cambodia's leading dissident, 15. Turnout was officially more than 90 percent. In November 1998, Hun Sen brought FUNCINPEC into a coalition government as a junior partner.
International donors resumed aid to Cambodia in 1999, and their grants and soft loans now make up about half of the government's annual budget. At the latest donor meeting in June 2001, governments and multilateral agencies pledged $615 million in aid while urging the Cambodian government to carry out legal and judicial reforms and curb corruption and illegal logging. While Hun Sen promised to increase the pace of reform, opposition leader Sam Rainsy urged donors to reconsider the merits of providing aid. He said the government had made minimal progress in tackling poverty and corruption, strengthening land rights, and establishing a tribunal to try Khmer Rouge leaders on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.
The government moved somewhat closer to bringing former Khmer Rouge leaders to justice in August when it pushed through parliament a law setting up a special tribunal following two years of negotiations with the United Nations. The body will have both local and UN-appointed judges and prosecutors. Many in the UN, however, are concerned with the fairness of any trials because Cambodian judges, who generally are considered to be influenced by the government, will be in the majority. At the same time, any majority decision will have to be signed by at least one international judge. At year's end, the government had not published a list of defendants or a date for trials to begin.
In a further sign of the country's fragile rule of law, the UN's representative on Cambodia, David Leuprecht, said in an August statement that he was "gravely concerned about instances of violence and intimidation against commune election candidates and members of political parties."
During the year, courts convicted more than four dozen men for their roles in a November 24, 2000, attack on government buildings in Phnom Penh that killed at least four people. An obscure, California-based antigovernment group, the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Cambodia's most recent parliamentary elections in 1998 were neither free nor fair because of violence, restrictions on press coverage and campaign opportunities, and official manipulation of the procedures for allocating parliamentary seats. There were at least 21 politically motivated killings, mainly of FUNCINPEC supporters, between late May and the June 26, 1998, election, UN observers reported. During the election campaign, authorities prevented opposition parties from using radio or television to reach voters, disrupted some opposition rallies, and banned political demonstrations in Phnom Penh. As the ballots were being counted, the CPP-dominated National Election Commission changed the electoral formula to boost the ruling party from a plurality to a majority of parliamentary seats. In any case, Cambodia's national assembly has little independent power and does not act as a check on Hun Sen's executive power.
Political parties generally operate freely, despite the murders in 2000 and 2001 of at least five party members who had planned to run in the 2002 commune elections. Local officials attributed the killings to personal disputes, while human rights groups said that at least three of the killings were politically motivated. A court convicted Im Nan, a CPP commune head, for the 2000 murders of a FUNCINPEC candidate, Pak Choeun, and that of his wife, Doung Meas. Another court convicted two other men for the 2001 killing of Uch Horn, an SRP candidate. However, there have been few, if any, prosecutions in the 41 political killings that following the 1997 coup and the 21 or more election-related killings during the 1998 campaign.
While Cambodia's overall human rights record has improved somewhat in recent years, security forces continue to commit serious abuses, the judiciary is not independent, trafficking and other abuses against women continue unabated, and employers violate labor rights with impunity. Soldiers and police committed several extrajudicial killings in 2000, according to the U.S. State Department's February 2001 report on Cambodia's human rights record in 2000. There is little evidence that extrajudicial killings ceased in 2001. While courts have successfully prosecuted some police and soldiers accused of lesser crimes and human rights abuses, anecdotal evidence suggests that most rogue officers act with virtual impunity.
The judiciary suffers from pervasive corruption, poorly trained and underpaid judges, a severe shortage of attorneys, and a lack of resources, according to the U.S. State Department report. Defendants often lack adequate legal representation for fair trials or must bribe judges for favorable verdicts, the report added. Pretrial detention is often lengthy. The makeup of two key judicial bodies is viewed widely as biased in favor of the ruling CPP, according to the State Department report. Those bodies are the Constitutional Council, which can review the constitutionality of laws, and the Supreme Council of Magistracy, which appoints, supervises, and can discipline judges. The latter has taken disciplinary action against several judges.
Police and soldiers routinely torture, beat, and otherwise abuse suspects in custody, according to the U.S. State Department and the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO). Despite some recent improvements, prisons remain dangerously overcrowded and inmates often lack sufficient food, water, and health care. In a sign of the poor state of Cambodia's criminal justice system, mobs in some cases have taken matters into their own hands, killing several alleged criminals.
Many of Cambodia's more than two dozen private newspapers routinely criticize government policies. Authorities, however, have in recent years used a strict 1995 press law to suspend several newspapers for 30-day periods for criticizing the government or monarchy. The press law provides journalists with several rights but also permits the information ministry to suspend newspapers, broadly prohibits publishing articles that affect national security and political stability, and subjects the press to criminal statutes. Government officials or close associates own almost all of the six Khmer-language television stations and 14 Khmer-language radio stations, the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres said in 2000. Only one independent radio station, Sambok Kmum (Beehive), broadcast in 2001. The information ministry has denied repeated requests from opposition leader Sam Rainsy for a license to operate a radio station. There have been no convictions in the cases of six journalists murdered on the job between 1994 and 1997.
Women enjoy equal access with men to education, but they are underrepresented in government, politics, and private sector management jobs. Nongovernmental groups say that rape and domestic violence are common. They also allege that trafficking of women and girls for prostitution continues to be widespread despite some prosecutions of traffickers in recent years. Many prostitutes reportedly are girls who were sold by their families into the commercial sex industry. Brothel owners frequently abuse and hold prostitutes in conditions of bonded servitude.
Buddhism is Cambodia's state religion, and more than 95 percent of the population is Buddhist. Muslims and other religious minorities can worship freely. The estimated 200,000 to 500,000 ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia face harassment and discrimination both by officials and within mainstream society, according to the U.S. State Department report.
Workers, farmers, students, and others held numerous protests throughout the year with little interference, although police or government-organized groups broke up some demonstrations. Of Cambodia's several hundred nongovernmental groups, some 40 do human rights work, investigating alleged abuses and educating Cambodians about their rights.
Cambodia's few independent trade unions are active but are small and have limited resources. Authorities have made few attempts to prosecute or punish employers accused of firing union leaders or other anti-union harassment. Workers in the garment sector, where unions are most active, frequently held strikes and demonstrations in Phnom Penh to protest against low wages, poor and dangerous working conditions, forced overtime, and dismissal of pro-union staff. In a country where some 80 percent of workers are subsistence farmers, union membership is estimated at less than one percent of the workforce.
Cambodia's relatively young garment industry is likely to be increasingly hurt by competition from Chinese and Vietnamese factories. They have more sophisticated equipment, better-skilled workers, and, in China's case, good access to U.S. and European markets, according to a 2001 report by the Cambodia Development Research Institute, a private Phnom Penh think-tank. Cambodia's garment sector accounts for 70 percent of total exports and provides jobs for some 160,000 people, mostly young women.
With Cambodian courts unable to enforce property rights and the land registration system a shambles, military and civilian officials have in recent years forcibly evicted several thousand families from their land, according to LICADHO and other Cambodian human rights groups. At the same time, local committees are increasingly settling many land disputes, according to the U.S. State Department report. Government officials, soldiers, and police tolerate and at times take part in money-laundering schemes, gun running, drug trafficking, and the activities of mainland Chinese prostitution rings.