ADJOURNMENT; Cambodia: General Election, Vietnam: Human Rights

June 27, 2018

Mr HAYES (FowlerChief Opposition Whip) (19:40): Again I draw the attention of the House to the upcoming general election in Cambodia, due to take place next month. Over the past year, Prime Minister Hun Sen has launched a broad crackdown against the critical and independent voices in his country. This includes the arrest of the opposition leader Kem Sokha, accused of treason, followed by the dissolution of the main opposition party late last year.

Press freedom and civil society have also been under attack in the lead-up to these national elections, with the closure of several media outlets, including The Cambodia Daily and Radio Free Asia as well as a number of NGOs who have been critical voices of this government. A dozen radio stations have been told they violated the broadcasting regulations for featuring opposition politicians or conducting licensed programming from Voice of America or Radio Free Asia. The National Democratic Institute, an NGO focused on civil participation, was told in late August that its foreign staff must leave the country within seven days and was ordered closed. Earlier this month the Asian Network for Free Elections, a regional election watchdog, released a report following an investigation by international observers into Cambodia's political situation. They concluded the upcoming elections are neither free nor fair. The report stated:

Cambodian citizens … reported that they do not feel they will able to make a free choice on election day …

Merely going through the exercise of marking ballots does not constitute a free and fair election.

…   …   …

Under current conditions, democratic elections will simply not happen in Cambodia.

These restrictions on independent media and civil society are of great concern. Promoting a society where freedom of speech and freedom of association are protected can only promote the safety of people in an environment which will be beneficial to millions of Cambodians, but, alas, this is not occurring in Cambodia today.

I would also like to take the opportunity to raise the upcoming Australia-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue, to be held in Vietnam in August this year. Vietnam and Australia have a continued and developing relationship, strengthening our bilateral ties through trade, education and culture, and most recently signed a strategic partnership prior to the ASEAN-Australia summit last March. The dialogue is an important opportunity for Australia to build on these ties and have frank and candid discussions about human rights.

It is pleasing to note that Vietnamese authorities, following a strong international campaign, have released prominent human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai together with his colleague Le Thu Ha. They are now living in exile in Germany. However, it remains of concern that four other colleagues of the Brotherhood for Democracy remain in prison, serving lengthy terms under the vague national security laws. Following his release, Nguyen Van Dai contacted my office. He wanted to thank the Australian community for their support and went on to say that those advocating for multiparty democracy, freedom of association and freedom of expression in Vietnam are arrested. Their crime is attempting to overthrow the state. The recent crackdown on the Brotherhood for Democracy was the most severe in decades, with prison authorities carrying out all possible measures to harass political prisoners.

Recently I co-hosted the crackdown on freedom of expression in Vietnam forum along with colleague Tim Wilson MP as well as representatives from VOICE and Human Rights Watch. According to Elaine Pearson, the Australian director of Human Rights Watch, there are currently more than 140 Vietnamese political prisoners, with as many as 14 still in pretrial detention. As Australia fosters stronger ties with our regional partner in the Asia-Pacific, it's only proper that we play a more forthright role in promoting universal human rights. It's an imperative as an active member of the international community, particularly now, as we have a seat on the international Human Rights Council. This is even more important given the recent decision by the US to resign from its membership of the UNHRC. It is important Australia steps up to the task of exercising its responsibilities. (Time expired)