The International Human Rights Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Cambodia is a State Party to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 21 governs the right of peaceful assembly, providing that:
The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Cambodia is not a State Party to the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, which allows individuals to petition the Human Rights Committee if they believe the State has violated their human rights as protected under the Covenant.
There is not yet a regional human rights treaty to which South-East Asian nations can adhere, although a non-binding human rights declaration was issued by the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2013. Paragraph 24 of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration provides that: "Every person has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly." Cambodia is a member of ASEAN.
The Domestic Legal Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Article 37 of the 1993 Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia allows the right to non-violent demonstration "in the framework of a law".
Article 41 of the Constitution provides that "Khmer citizens shall have freedom of ... assembly. No one shall exercise this right to infringe upon the rights of others, to affect the good traditions of the society, to violate public law and order and national security".
The primary legislation governing assembly is the 2009 Law on Peaceful Demonstrations. Peaceful assembly is defined as a “gathering or march conducted by a group of people to publicly demand, protest or express their sentiments, opinions or will by using various forms or means peacefully.”Art. 4, 2009 Law on Peaceful Demonstrations
The law provides that anyone wishing to organise a peaceful assembly at any public place must notify the local authorities in writing at least five working days before the planned date of the assembly.Arts. 5 and 7, 2009 Law on Peaceful Demonstrations.The Law provides that the authorities must approve requests unless the peaceful assembly is to be held on a holiday or there is clear information indicating the demonstration may cause danger or may seriously jeopardise security, safety, or public order.Art. 9, 2009 Law on Peaceful Demonstrations.Demonstrations are widely denied in practice.
Article 2 of the Law provides that peaceful assembly “shall not be used abusively affecting the rights, freedoms, and honor of others, good customs of the national society, public order and national security.” The Ministry of Interior's 2010 Implementation Guide for the Law does not clarify these terms.
A 2018 law prohibiting criticism of the king imposed additional restrictions on freedom of assembly.
The Legal Framework on Use of Force During Assemblies
The Use of Force
International Legal Rules
Under international law, the duty on the State and its law enforcement agencies is to facilitate the enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly. According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials:
In the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.
All force used by police and other law enforcement agencies must be necessary for a legitimate law enforcement purpose and proportionate to that purpose.
There do not appear to be detailed standards in Cambodian national law governing police use of force. Law enforcement is primarily the responsibility of the Royal Cambodian Police and the Royal Gendarmerie.
Article 64 of the 2007 Code of Criminal Procedure, however, provides that all cases in which a judicial police officer has committed misconduct during the performance of his duty shall be reported by the Royal Prosecutor or the investigating judge to the General Prosecutor attached to the Court of Appeal.
The Use of Firearms
International Legal Rules
According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles, in the dispersal of violent assemblies, a law enforcement official may only use a firearm against a specific individual where this is necessary to confront an imminent threat of death or serious injury or a grave and proximate threat to life.
There does not appear to be specific legislation governing police use of firearms, including during assemblies.
State Compliance with its Legal Obligations
Views and Concluding Observations of United Nations Treaty Bodies
In its 2015 Concluding Observations on Cambodia, the Human Rights Committee expressed its concern about
the increasing number of reports of arbitrary arrest of demonstrators and the practice of requiring them to thumbprint documents pledging to refrain from future demonstrations.
The Committee called on Cambodia to
ensure that the Law on Peaceful Demonstrations is implemented in conformity with the Covenant. It should also ensure that the exercise of the right to peaceful assembly is not subject to restrictions other than the ones permissible under the Covenant.
In his 2018 report to the UN Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia called for the repeal of provisions of the Criminal Code that could be used to restrict the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association in order to achieve greater compatibility with international human rights standards.
In the 2019 Universal Periodic Review of Cambodia under the UN Human Rights Council, many governments expressed concern about restrictions on the exercise of the right of peaceful assembly.
Views of Civil Society
In October 2020, CVICUS reported that
Prime Minister Hun Sen is ratcheting up attempts to silence dissent in the country. Over the last few months, we have seen an escalation in arrests of human rights defenders, activists and musicians on trumped up charges. Former members of the banned opposition party Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) continue to be targeted and have been prosecuted and convicted. Their families who have been protesting outside their detention centres have faced repression. Despite the pandemic, the government is introducing new laws and regulations that could be used to restrict civic freedoms, including a public order law and a national internet gateway.
It further reported that relatives of detained Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) activists have protested in front of the Phnom Penh municipal court weekly since 19 June 2020. They have handed in petitions to foreign embassies and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Cambodia. According to Human Rights Watch, on the morning of 24 July 2020, a large presence of mixed security forces confronted family members of the detained opposition activists gathered in front of the Phnom Penh municipal court and tried to move them away. The security forces violently confiscated one protester’s sign. Security officers in civilian clothes with walkie-talkies roamed the area, taking photos of protesters and bystanders. On 31 July 2020, security forces blocked protesters from reaching the municipal court, grabbing and pushing them to the ground. Officers apprehended Sath Pha, a cousin of Heng Sothy, a detained CNRP activist. They dragged her across the street and forcibly put her into a police car. She was taken to the police station, questioned and released after she signed a pledge not to join marches and protests in the future.
On 4 September 2020, the wife of a CNRP activist was severely injured and several other women were roughed up when security personnel violently dispersed their protest. Seng Chanthorn, the wife of political activist Sun Thun, was admitted to hospital after authorities from the city’s Prampi Makara district threw her to the street, causing her to pass out.
In its 2013 report, Taking to the Streets, Freedom of Peaceful Assembly in Cambodia, Amnesty International stated that "despite a presumption in Cambodia’s 2009 Law on Peaceful Demonstrations in favour of allowing assemblies, the authorities are imposing arbitrary restrictions on them and sometimes banning them outright." Amnesty found that
Organizers and participants who ignore attempts to restrict or prohibit peaceful assemblies find themselves in direct confrontation with security forces, who have resorted to using unnecessary and excessive force against assembly participants, often resulting in injuries and sometimes deaths. The vast majority of assemblies examined in [the] report were peaceful and provided no justification for the use of force. There are clear international standards on exactly when force and firearms can be used and to what extent. These standards have not yet been fully incorporated into Cambodia’s domestic law and their core principles of legality, necessity and proportionality are frequently ignored by security forces.