[Published by the Cambodia Herald on 10 February 2014.]
Most of the NGOs involved with the so-called Electoral Reform Alliance would describe themselves as supporters of human rights. It may therefore come as a surprise to some readers to discover that the report of the ERA released in early December firmly advocates curtailing the rights of Cambodians who serve in the armed forces or in the civil service.
It does this in two ways. First, it argues that the law already deprives the armed forces and civil servants of the right to participate in politics. Then, it argues that the “enforcement” of the law should be “strengthened” in ways that would severely limit armed forces’ and civil servants’ political rights.
It begins by quoting the law regarding civil servants: “Any civil servant shall be neutral when exercising his/her functions and shall forbid himself/herself to use his/her position and the State facilities to undertake the following political activities: to work for or against a political party and to work for or against a political candidate. Any behavior contrary to this Article shall constitute a transgression or a professional breach.” (p. 12)
That is pretty straightforward, as is the corresponding law for the military: “Military personnel shall be neutral in their functions and work activities, and the use of functions/titles and State’s materials for serving any political activities shall be prohibited.”
The laws forbid civil servants or armed forces to use state property or to perform their functions in a way that favours a political party. But neither civil servants nor military personnel are on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The laws do not prohibit political activity during times when they are not performing their official duties. But the ERA report authors simply ignore the plain meaning of the laws they have quoted so they can pretend that CPP military personnel and civil servants are violating the law:
“The CPP has wide organizational party structures within the state administration and the police and military forces, counter to the law … [Provincial and district governors, department chiefs etc.] were assigned functions as civil servants and therefore were prohibited from taking part in any political party activity, but they were serving as heads of CPP committees and CPP committee members in a number of provinces and districts.”
“Prohibited from taking part in any political party activity”! This is pure invention by the ERA, and it is contrary to both Cambodian and international law.
Article 7.7 of the Regulations and Procedures for the Election of the Members of the National Assembly of the Fifth Mandate clearly states: “After or besides working hours or besides the official work capacity, civil servants, local authorities of all levels, royal armed forces, police and judicial officers may participate in campaign activities to support any political party or candidate, but shall not be in uniform and/or shall not carry weapons.”
And Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights declares:
“Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions:
(a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives;
(b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors;
(c) To have access, on general terms of equality, to public service in his country.”
Contrary to this international covenant, the “human rights” NGOs of the ERA don’t want the armed forces and civil servants to enjoy normal political rights – ever. One of their “recommendations” is:
“The enforcement of laws guaranteeing the neutrality of judges, village chiefs, authorities, and armed forces personnel (including police) should be strengthened in order to prevent them from participating actively in any political party activities and electoral campaigns, either during or after working hours (p. 14, my emphasis).”
Why should any Cambodian who joins the armed forces or gets a job as a civil servant have to give up the right to participate in political activity? If someone in such a position says to a family member, “I think the X Party deserves my vote”, would that person be removed from their position under the “strengthened enforcement” advocated by the ERA for the offence of participating in an electoral campaign? A right to vote that doesn’t include the right to discuss parties and political issues doesn’t mean very much.
As I pointed out in an earlier article, the ERA report is openly dismissive of elected bodies like commune councils, precisely because they are elected. It calls for “independent organisations” (meaning the NGOs involved) to take over various electoral functions, including selection of the NEC. The desire to restrict the political rights of civil servants and military personnel is quite consistent with this distrust of voters.
For all their talk about “democracy” and “human rights”, the organisations using the name ERA display a thoroughly anti-democratic attitude, in which a self-appointed elite, generally foreign-funded, makes the important decisions but takes no responsibility: even their recommendations are cited as coming simply from “independent observers”; ordinary people have no right to know who is proposing laws and regulations on their behalf.