PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - With political and press freedoms under pressure ahead of elections scheduled for July, the U.N.'s specially appointed researcher on human rights in Cambodia said Wednesday it is a mistake for the government of long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen to prioritize stability and development over human rights.
Professor Rhona Smith, speaking at the end of her fifth visit to Cambodia as a U.N. rapporteur, praised Cambodia for its gains in economic and social rights, but declared that "it is also necessary to respect civil and political rights."
Smith said freedom of expression was under serious threat, as was people's right to take part in public affairs through freely chosen representatives.
Hun Sen has cracked down severely on his opponents ahead of the scheduled polls, shutting down critical media and using the courts to dissolve the only credible opposition party.
He has repeatedly cited the need for peace and stability as a reason for taking such measures, declaring that there will be trouble if he is not allowed to stay in office for another decade, as he has vowed to do.
"Restricting Cambodians' voices could ultimately threaten the very stability that the government and the people have worked hard to build," Smith said in a statement. "Freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly should be protected and developed, not restricted, in a multiparty liberal democracy."
Hun Sen has been in power for three decades, maintaining a framework of democracy while exercising near-total control. His grip seemed shaken in 2013's general election, when the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party mounted a strong challenge, winning 55 seats in the National Assembly and leaving Hun Sen's party with 68. Last year, Hun Sen's government and his Cambodian People's Party began mobilizing to neutralize political opponents and silence critics ahead of the general election in July. They pursued their offensive through the courts, which are considered politicized and normally rule in the government's favour.
Smith described such tactics as "rule by law" rather than "rule of law."
She noted that since she had last reported to the U.N. Human Rights Council in September, "there have been serious curtailments to freedoms of assembly, expression and association, as well as dramatic changes to political participation and electoral rights. As a result, political actors have been banned from engaging in national politics, media outlets have been closed, and many civil society actors are reluctant to speak openly or defend human rights."
Human rights groups and Western nations have sharply criticized Hun Sen's crackdown, and the United States and Germany have targeted some Cambodian officials with visa bans to underline their disapproval.
Smith said human rights "cannot be selectively respected or ignored and they must not be sacrificed. Peace without justice is unsustainable; development without freedom leaves people behind."