Good News from Cambodia: Together we've made a difference!

The struggle for human rights will outlast our generation, and the backdrop of enduring injustice such as the 40-year occupation of Palestinian territories, or the 20-year grip of the generals in Burma, as well as deepening economic and social inequalities and strife within and between nations, can make our efforts sometimes seem like a thankless, endless, even hopeless, task.

But we shouldn’t lose sight of some of the monumental advances over these past 30 years – the end of Apartheid in South Africa, the democratic gains in South Korea, Poland, Argentina, the increasing number of countries that have repealed the death penalty and the growing acceptance of the full citizenship of lesbians and gay men in some nations. As we celebrate our anniversary, I think it serves us well to remember these and other landmarks as we continue to focus on the enduring hotspots of human rights abuse, including Iran, Zimbabwe and Colombia. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things can and do bring about change.

But not all advances come in the form of mass social upheavals leading to radical transformation: most human rights improvements come incrementally and gradually, through the unrelenting efforts of many, and once won, rights have to be defended and implemented through vigilance and struggle.

So it was amazing news to learn on New Year’s morning, an unintended gift to usher in our Anniversary, that the Supreme Court in Cambodia, had taken an unprecedented step toward righting a serious wrong. They didn’t do it, I believe, as a result of some suddenly acquired respect for the rule of law, they reacted as a consequence of the persistent protests of Cambodian workers, supported by Amnesty and union activism and the unwavering spotlight we put them under.

The story begins with the cold-blooded assassination of prominent trade union leader Chea Vichea at a newstand in central Phnom Penh on 22 January 2004. At the time of his death, Vichea, 36, was the well-respected President of the Free Trade Union of Workers in Cambodia, which was organising in Cambodia’s burgeoning garment industry. He had led his union for five years and worked for wage increases, reduced working hours, and protection for union reps. You can read an account in the Spring 2008 issue of our Trade Union Alert magazine, which you can download here. His murder caused uproar within Cambodia and attracted widespread international condemnation.

Two men – Born Samnang, 25, and Sok Sam Oeun, 36 – were sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment on 1 August 2005 for his murder. Their appeal was turned down on 12 April 2007, despite an unfair prosecution and a deeply flawed criminal investigation – even the prosecution admitted there were considerable gaps in their case. Both men had strong alibis for the time of the murder and the prosecution presented no direct evidence, apart from a confession from one of them extracted under duress.

Impunity lies at the heart of serious human rights problems in Cambodia. In a weak and corrupt judicial system high profile cases are marked by political interference, and more broadly, a failure to adhere to procedures laid down in national law and international standards.  Amnesty International believes that the true perpetrators of the murder of Chea Vichea have not been held to account and that Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were unjustly imprisoned.

We have worked very intensively the past five years on their cases and in support of justice for Vichea, and we have done so in close collaboration with the international trade union movement and other human rights NGO’s and governments.

In a joint statement last year with Amnesty and others, Guy Ryder of the Brussels-based International Trade Union Confederation, whose 311 affiliates represent 168 million workers worldwide said: “The murder of Chea Vichea and other trade union leaders has had a chilling effect on labor rights and workers’ freedoms in Cambodia, even more so given the lack of proper, credible investigations to find their killers. It sends a deplorable message to Cambodian workers that trade union membership or activity will put their safety at risk.”

The detailed investigative journalism in the documentary The Plastic Killers which was shown in Cambodia despite efforts at censorship and which we screened in London last year, has helped keep the public spotlight on the case. This film has now been updated as Who Killed Chea Vichea.

Under intense scrutiny, on New Year’s Eve, the Supreme Court quashed their convictions and ordered a retrial. In an entirely unprecedented step, they were also released pending the future trial, which we shall, of course, monitor closely. Maybe, just maybe, we can banish the impunity in this case.

It seems that the widespread exposure of the patent failings of the justice system, ongoing protests within Cambodia and our persistent activism in partnership with the global trade union movement to get the donor nations to put pressure on the Cambodian authorities, together with the sterling work of activist networks such as Labour Behind the Label has had an effect. Together we can make a difference.

This week is the fifth anniversary of Vichea’s murder. Hundreds of factory workers and civil society activists gathered Thursday in Phnom Penh for a commemorative march,  with the participation of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, who had come to pay their own respects. The event was organised by the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, and began with a rally at the headquarters of the Free Trade Union of Workers (FTU).

"We hope the police and investigating judges will make an effort to investigate then arrest the real murderers and their accomplices," said Chea Vichea's brother and FTU President Chea Mony, welcoming the provisional release of suspects Born Samnang, and Sok Sam Oeun. "We have a small amount of justice due to the temporary release … but we still have no real justice because the real murderers and their accomplices are living freely," he said. Sok Sam Ouen's father, Von Vann, 65, added that “the support of civil society and those close to Chea Vichea had helped secure their release”.

We’re not there yet, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun are not yet exculpated, there is still no justice for Vichea, while the labour rights situation in Cambodia remains dire, One case does not bring a corrupt system crumbling down, but it is a huge step in the right direction.

Impunity – the denial of justice – is the gravest challenge affecting trade unionists today, abetting the intimidation and murder of Colombian trade unionists, shielding the assassins of Guatemalan dock workers’ leader Pedro Zamora, and putting human rights defenders at extreme risk in many parts of the world. This is a subject I will return to throughout the year, but meanwhile do check out RichardW’s blog Article Eight on this site. He eloquently focuses on the issue and exposes the connivance and complicity of governments in the denial of justice.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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