The treatment of labor union leaders by governmental authorities in Cambodia has a volatile history and has been the subject of concern by various international and regional authorities, including the International Labor Organization, the European Commission, and certain United Nations Special Rapporteurs. National and international organizations focusing on human rights and labor rights have criticized provisions in Cambodia’s Trade Union Law, Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO), and Criminal Code, which collectively impede the ability of labor union organizations to organize workers and to continue general operations or engage in any activity deemed political by the Cambodian government. In addition, labor organizers are individually targeted with criminal prosecutions, in which the slow-moving criminal trial process becomes a punishment in and of itself. This report focuses on the prosecution of six labor union leaders who faced criminal charges in the aftermath of protests surrounding the 2013 National Assembly election results, which continued the 28-year reign of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party.
In these six cases, this report finds significant procedural and substantive violations of international rights to fair trial, freedom of association, and other rights recognized under conventions to which Cambodia is a party. In July 2018, labor union leaders Ath Thorn, Pav Sina, Mam Nhim, Rong Chhun, Yang Sophorn, and Chea Mony were officially charged with a range of crimes carrying jail sentences of up to five years, including obstructing traffic and intentionally causing damage or violence. The accused were not detained before their trial. After a delay of four years from the time the events in question occurred, the trial commenced in December 2018. In an egregious interference with the individuals’ right to adequate time to prepare their defense, the charges against the defendants were changed by the trial judges on December 11, 2018—the same day on which their verdict was delivered. All six defendants were convicted on the new charges of “instigation” under Article 28 of the Cambodian Criminal Code in relation to the following offenses: “intentional acts with violence with aggravating circumstances,” under Article 218 of the Criminal Code; “intentionally causing damage with aggravating circumstances,” under Article 411 of the Criminal Code; “threats to destroy followed by an order,” under Article 424 of the Criminal Code; and “acts of using any means to obstruct public traffic,” under Article 78 of Law on Traffic. The six defendants were sentenced to two years and six months suspended imprisonment term.
Subsequently, in May 2019, Prime Minister Hun Sen exerted public pressure on the Court of Appeal, which eventually set aside the prison sentences for the six union leaders but not their convictions. Despite the defendants avoiding a prison sentence, the consequences of conviction remained severe, as, under Article 20 of the Trade Union Law, an individual was ineligible to act as leader of a trade union if they had been convicted of any criminal offense. This provision of the Trade Union Law was amended in January 2020 after Cambodia’s trade partners, including the European Union, pressured the government to amend the law.
Despite the ultimate avoidance of a guilty verdict for the six union leaders, the improvised nature of the acquittal demonstrates the lack of institutional protections for labor unions engaging in nonviolent criticism of governmental policy. The unexplained delay in investigating the case, conviction in the absence of any persuasive evidence on charges that were changed at the last minute, and the Prime Minister’s efforts to influence the timing and outcome of the appeal all constitute severe violations of international norms.
Legal and institutional reforms are urgently needed in Cambodia. The government is facing an increased wave of scrutiny of its treatment of labor union members. With nearly half of the nation’s exports and GDP relying on a dynamic garment and footwear production sector, the government’s ongoing harassment of workers in this sector risks undermining economic development of the country. In February 2020, the European Commission decided to suspend Cambodia’s “Everything But Arms” preferred trading status based on a multi-year review process in response to the deterioration in the human rights situation. In particular, the Commission highlighted the unresolved prosecution of labor union leaders and various over-broad or vague labor law provisions as severe violations of the state’s obligations under international law.
To restore its preferred trading status with the European Union and avoid further economic damage, the government will need to address the underlying concerns laid out by the European Commission. Yet, throughout the summer of 2020, the Cambodian government arrested and charged several union leaders, human rights defenders, and democracy advocates for various crimes. Rather than continuing this harassment of labor unionists and human rights defenders, the government must facilitate a process that expedites the dismissal of any pending frivolous claims that punish labor union leaders for activity protected under international law and commits to avoiding these kinds of prosecutions altogether. In addition, while there have been some reforms made to the nation’s Trade Union Law relating to the ability of individuals charged with crimes to hold leadership positions in the union, substantial reforms must also be made to the nation’s Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations and the Criminal Code to bring the country into compliance with its international obligations to facilitate the return of the nation’s preferred trading status with the European Union.