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Analyzing the Cambodian General Elections through the Lens of the ICCPR

On July 23rd, Cambodian citizens went to the polls for their general election. In a landslide victory, the Cambodian ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), won 120 out of 125 parliamentary seats. However, human rights experts have voiced opinions of concern regarding the legality and morality surrounding the repressive political practices and shrinking democratic scene in Cambodia.

The Cambodian People’s Party claims its origins in 1951, in conjunction with the creation of the Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party, which was founded on Marxist-Leninist principles. In recent years, however, it has tried to distance itself from associations with communist and socialist principles. The current prime minister of Cambodia is Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1985 when he was appointed by Vietnamese officials. He is currently one of the longest- serving government leaders. Considering the results of the July election, he is planning to resign, and hand over power to his son Hun Manet. Clarifying his future role in the Cambodian government, Mr. Hun Sen said, “Even if I am no longer a prime minister, I will still control politics as the head of the ruling party.” Hun Manet will be confirmed by Parliament as the prime minister of Cambodia on August 22, 2023, though his father plans to maintain his authority over Cambodian politics. The party and government are composed in a way that permits Hun Sen to continue this level of control, and in turn, suppression of democracy, despite some safeguards, like international human rights treaties.

Cambodia is party to several international human rights treaties and has ratified many of them, thus binding itself to follow the rules outlined in these treaties. These treaties include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and The Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as many others. For the issue of the most recent election, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was ratified in 1992, is the most relevant. The ICCPR is monitored by the Human Rights Committee which is made up of 18 human rights experts from states that have ratified the Covenant. All states party to the Covenant must submit regular reports detailing how civil and political rights are being implemented in their states.

Article 25(a and b) in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that each citizen shall have the right “To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives; To vote and be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be held by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot.” While elections in Cambodia may have been held, there is significant dispute as to whether or not it was genuine. Given that the only legitimate opposing party of the CPP was the Candlelight Party, and the Candlelight Party was disqualified from participating in the election due to Hun Sen’s claim that they improperly registered for the election, Cambodian citizens were not afforded the right to “freely chosen representatives.” Additionally, in 2018, the Cambodian People’s Party won all 125 seats in Parliament, due to a squashing of all opposing parties for reasons similar to the Candlelight Party’s disqualification, demonstrating Hun Sen’s continued lack of commitment to the ICCPR’s protection of the right to vote, in favour of his party’s interests. In the month prior to the elections, Hun Sen passed a series of amendments to election laws, including penalisations for citizens who do not vote, large fines for those who encouraged others not to vote, and even larger fines for those who “disturbed the election process.” Disturbance of the election process most effectively allowed the government to fine those who expressed opinions in opposition to the CPP. All of these actions directly violate the ICCPR’s protections for voting, outlined in Article 25.

Article 19(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” Throughout his lengthy stint serving the Cambodian people, Hun Sen has traditionally suppressed any opposition to his party by jailing critics of the CPP, silencing news media outlets which may disagree with him, and threatening political opponents with violence via Facebook. This contradicts Article 19(2) of the ICCPR, which promotes freedom of expression, including through the media. Meta, the parent company of Facebook, viewed Hun Sen’s threatening posts so egregious that they chose to ban him from using Facebook. In June 2023 statement, Meta’s Oversight Board said “Given the severity of the violation, Hun Sen’s history of committing human rights violations and intimidating political opponents, as well as his strategic use of social media to amplify such threats, the Board calls upon Meta to immediately suspend Hun Sen’s Facebook page and Instagram account for six months.” Ultimately, Hun Sen briefly deleted his Facebook, to prevent himself from getting banned, but later returned. By threatening political opponents on Facebook for expressing contradictory views, Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party explicitly violated this freedom of expression and information, detailed in Article 19(2) of the ICCPR. It is important to note that Cambodia voluntarily ratified this treaty, therefore choosing to govern in alignment with the principles laid out in the ICCPR. This violation carries an appreciable relevance during the Cambodian general elections when citizens should have felt free to express any opinion on the election.

The Cambodian General Elections held on July 23rd may have taken place, but they hold little merit when analyzed through the lens of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. By threatening violence to those exercising their right to freedom of speech (and in some cases imprisoning or exiling those who disagree with the CPP), banning opposing political parties, and maintaining an extremely tight grip over Cambodian politics, Hun Sen has ensured a political scene in which an election aligning with the principles of the ICCPR is unachievable. However, it is probable that this political scene will remain standard for Cambodia. As mentioned previously, the Human Rights Committee monitors the enforcement of the Covenant and produces regular reports on how effective states are at governing in alignment with the ICCPR. However, those opinions are not legally enforceable. Instead, many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are involved in supporting treaty compliance. In a recent report, Cambodia was cited as needing a national human rights institution (similar to NGOs) to ensure the protection of rights outlined in the ICCPR in accordance with the Paris Principles. A need for better anti-corruption measures in the government was also mentioned. Cambodia’s human rights record and recent election will be analyzed by the UN Human Rights Council later this year, bringing the deteriorating Cambodian political scene to the scrutiny of the UN and the public.


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