Speeches Chris has made in the Australian Federal Parliament.


September 12, 2017

Mr HAYES (FowlerChief Opposition Whip) (17:41): This evening, I'd like to speak about the dire human rights situation in Cambodia. There's been significant deterioration in Cambodia over recent weeks, culminating in the arrest of Kem Sokha, the leader of Cambodia's main opposition party. Kem Sokha is accused of treason and colluding with foreigners under article 443 of Cambodia's penal code arising out of a speech he gave to supporters in Melbourne. If convicted, Kem Sokha faces up to 30 years imprisonment for what the Cambodian government has described as a Washington based plot to undermine its leadership.

Shortly after midnight on 3 September this year, more than 100 police officers, without a warrant, raided and vandalised Kem Sokha's home. As a result, Kem Sokha was arrested and taken to the notorious remote prison on the border of Vietnam known as CC3, where he's been detained without access to lawyers. Kem Sokha's arrest is a blatant violation of Cambodia's constitutional guarantee for immunity to members of parliament and an affront to the rule of law. John Sifton, director of Human Rights Watch, Asia, highlights the charge against Kem Sokha as lacking:

… credibility, given its—

the Cambodian government's—

long record of misusing its legal system to silence or intimidate critics and political opponents.

The arrest is a major setback for democracy and human rights in Cambodia and is clearly designed to reinforce the authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen ahead of next year's general election. The value and principle work undertaken by the international community in the lead-up to the Paris Peace Accord in 1991 is systematically being unravelled as Cambodia heads towards being, once again, an authoritarian state. Phil Robertson, the Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch, Asia, has commented extensively on the matter. He said:

Prosecuting Kem Sokha for treason would be a devastating setback not only for human rights in Cambodia, but for the country's hopes of future democratic development … Once again the government is using its control over the judiciary to manipulate the legal system to silence political opponents.

This most recent development in Cambodia is not happening in a vacuum but is accompanied by a broad crackdown by the government on critical and independent voices ahead of the July election next year.

While Cambodia has been engulfed in a climate of fear, the recent crackdown by the Hun Sen government has been described by many, including Charles Santiago, chairperson of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, as:

… the worst since the country's signing of the Paris Peace Accords … that ended years of civil war and genocide.

Since 2015, assaults on government critics have intensified, with the brutal bashing of two members of the opposition party, Kong Sophea and Nhay Chamroeun. The situation has become dramatically worse over the last two years, with criminal charges having been laid against both opposition members and a number of serious threats to civil society, independent journalism and opposition groups in Cambodia. The government seems to have grown more paranoid ever since the Cambodia National Rescue Party mounted a strong showing at the last national election in 2013. With the upcoming general election next year, many groups and individuals have been subject to intimidation from the government for exercising their basic rights to peaceful assembly and political expression. There are now escalating threats to independent media and civil society, with authorities suddenly alleging that various outlets and organisations owe back taxes as a means of shutting them down.

I have been informed that the independent newspaper, The Cambodia Daily, was last week forced to close down in these circumstances. For almost 25 years the Daily has been addressing sensitive topics including issues of corruption, land evictions and illegal logging. Furthermore, two radio stations, the Women's Media Centre of Cambodia and Moha Nokor, were recently suspended for allegedly breaching their licence agreements. They were airing news from Radio Free Asia and Voice of America. The National Democratic Institute, a US organisation which focuses on civic participation, was told in August that all its foreign staff must leave Cambodia and its operation must be closed. Five senior staff of the Human Rights and Development Association were harassed and arrested for their activism regarding human rights. The 'ADHOC five', as they have become known, were held in detention for 427 days without charge until they were released on bail following international outrage. It is important to note that the 'ADHOC five' still face the prospect of up to 10 years imprisonment, if convicted.

These acts of intimidation by the government follow on from the murder of Kem Ley, a prominent political commentator who was a critic of the Hun Sen government, particularly over issues of corruption. The resurrection of an arrest warrant for the former opposition leader Sam Rainsy, connected to an old, politically motivated criminal case against him, has also raised great concerns amongst the international community. The arrest warrant led to Sam Rainsy's decision in 2015 to remain outside Cambodia, which gave the government momentum to pass two repressive amendments to the law on political parties. The amendments allow the government to dissolve political parties, as well as ban party leaders from political activity, without any due process or appropriate appeal mechanisms. These provisions forced Sam Rainsy to step down as opposition leader and now pose a similar threat to Kem Sokha, who would similarly lose his party leadership if convicted of the charges against him. Kem Sokha's arrest reinforces the government's desperate attempt to maintain its more than 30-year rule.

The Cambodian Australian Federation expressed the views of many in my community when it said:

Hun Sen's government has once again trampled all over Cambodia's laws and its Constitution which enshrine the rights to parliamentary immunity, freedom of expression, press and publication for Khmer citizens.

In order to address the deteriorating human rights situation in Cambodia and allow for an environment of free and fair elections, Australia needs to take an active role as part of the concerned international community. This is imperative, given that Australia is the fifth largest donor to Cambodia and will provide an estimated $87.4 million in development assistance to Cambodia in 2017-18.

There is a clear case to press for stronger language in the United Nations Human Rights Council's annual resolution on Cambodia. We should support the renewal of the special rapporteur's mandate as well as tasking the UN high commissioner with reporting back, prior to the national election, on the civil and political situation in Cambodia. Addressing these issues of human rights is essential from any developmental perspective for Cambodia. Promoting a safer society where the right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are protected, rather than threatened, can help Cambodia improve its standing in the global community.

Given our ambitions for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, Australia should play a more forthright role as we develop closer economic ties with countries in the Asia-Pacific region. We should use our influence to enhance human rights and promote genuine democratic principles. This way, we can ensure our commercial ties help states like Cambodia improve their human rights record, which in turn can help them open up prospects for new economic opportunities.