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Tackling complex rights issues

Srinivas MazumdaruSeptember 25, 2015

Cambodia's rapid economic growth over the past decade has also intensified problems such as forced evictions and land grabs. The UN's envoy to the country has called on the government to urgently tackle the issues.

Rhona Smith UN Sonderberichterstatterin für Kambodscha
Image: picture alliance/Photoshot

Cambodian authorities should urgently address land and labor disputes that have created widespread discontent in the Southeast Asian nation, said Rhona Smith, United Nations Special Rapporteur in Cambodia, on Friday, September 25, adding that the government should adopt a "human rights-centered approach" while dealing with these issues.

The UN expert also stressed the country should further strengthen the rule of law and ensure the independence of various bodies, such as judiciary, that are responsible for the protection of human rights in the country. The steps are necessary for Cambodia to become "a stable democratic nation that Cambodians aspire to live in," Smith said at the end of her first official visit to the country.

'A complex issue'

Cambodia's rapid economic growth over the past decade has been accompanied by a spike in forced land acquisitions and evictions, around which revolve some of the country's worst human rights abuses.

Last year, the number of people affected by state-involved land conflicts since 2000 crossed the half-million mark, according to nongovernmental organization LICADHO.

Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), another non-profit group, estimates that 11 percent of the capital Phnom Penh's population has been displaced, often forcibly evicted, over the past two decades. Residents are typically forced to move because they cannot produce ownership papers, a legacy of the brutal 1975-79 Khmer Rouge government that destroyed all property records.

UN rapporteur Smith described the problem of land grabs as one of the "most complex human rights issues" the nation is currently facing. Although she noted that there has been some progress on this front, she underlined that "there is still much to be done" to put an end to the practice.

Despite repeated pledges by the current government, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, critics point out Phnom Penh's failure in terms of ending unlawful land grabs. Sen, who has dominated Cambodian politics for almost three decades, is credited with transforming the country into one of the region's fastest-growing economies. But he is also regularly criticized by campaigners for ignoring human rights and stamping out dissent.

Critics have also decried what they view as the government's failure to curb serious labor rights violations, particularly in the country's vital garments industry. An estimated 700,000 workers were employed by the country's garments sector in 2014, with the total value of the industry's exports worth about $5.7 billion.

Migration and poverty

Although Cambodia is predominantly an agrarian society, the economy has been transitioning in recent years, with a growing number of people shifting into non-farm sectors.

Kambodscha Textilfabrik Phnom Penh
Cambodia's garments sector employed around 700,000 people in 2014Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Furthermore, more and more people are migrating from rural to urban areas. "This shift has led to calls for an increase in wages as well as the improvement of education and health, which have a direct impact on people's livelihood," Silas Everett, The Asia Foundation country representative in Cambodia, told DW.

But with growing numbers of Cambodians abandoning farm labor to seek employment elsewhere, rights groups accuse the government of further weakening labor protections for the country's impoverished workforce.

A nationwide survey conducted by The Asia Foundation last year found that more Cambodians than at any time since 2004 felt their country was moving in the wrong direction, with insecurity and economic vulnerabilities topping the list of their concerns.