PEN International delegates attended the 18th session of the United Nations Universal Periodic Review, under which every member state’s human record is reviewed every four and a half years. Fourteen countries were under review, but PEN focused on Cambodia, Eritrea and Viet Nam, three countries where we have significant freedom of expression concerns and on which we submitted shadow reports outlining our main concerns six months earlier.
PEN International’s International Policy and Advocacy Officer Sarah Clarke attended the review of Cambodia and urged UN member states to call on Cambodia to respect free speech and other fundamental human rights. Just days before the review, government forces reacted violently against a peaceful protest by garment workers in Phnom Penh demonstrating for higher wages. The Cambodian government has repeatedly used excessive force to suppress peaceful protests in the country in 2013, including surrounding last year’s controversial election, the result of which is still widely challenged.
Prior to the review, PEN International co-hosted a well-attended side event with ARTICLE 19. Land rights activist Ms. Tep Vanny attended the event and spoke powerfully about the pressures her Boeung Kak Lake community faced in Cambodia after being forcibly displaced in 2009. Ms. Vanny was arrested just three days before she was to fly out to Geneva, as she was handing over a petition to the United States Embassy in Cambodia, calling for the release of the 23 individuals that are still detained after being arrested during the 2 January garment workers’ protest. Fortunately, she was released that same day and was able to fly to monitor the UPR. Ms Vanny’s colleague, Yorm Bopha, who is also a protest song-writer and for whom PEN International campaigned during her 14-month politically-motivated imprisonment in 2013, gave a video-testimony presentation by video-link as she was not able to obtain a passport in time to attend .
The Cambodian Government failed to adequately account for the current crackdown on protesters and ban on assembly in their account. While typically UN member states send senior-ranking ministers as a sign of respect for the global human rights mechanism, the Cambodian government sent the Vice Chair of the Cambodian National Human Rights Committee. PEN International believes this to be a sign of disregard for the human rights review process.
Ahead of the UPR, PEN International, along with a coalition consisting of ARTICLE 19, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, and Ms. Tep, met with the United States, Swiss, Czech, and Indonesian permanent missions. The first three of which made explicit recommendations to Cambodia to respect free speech and freedom of assembly. However, Indonesia, along with the other ASEAN member states that spoke during the UPR, were all silent on the Cambodian government’s crackdown on free speech, and instead gave glowing reviews of its human rights efforts.
Responding after the UPR, Ms. Tep stated, “It was clear to me that the government of Cambodia does not care about the UPR process because they lied about the real situation in the country. I am disgusted with the way they spoke, avoiding all truth and responsibility. They accused my community, victims of forcible eviction, of fabricating our problems for personal gain. I was shocked to hear these accusations being made in front of the international community. The authorities have continually lied to us, arrested and beaten us, but the pain is now stronger in seeing them come before the entire international community with the same lies. In that moment, I wanted to stand up and shout out the truth, but instead I had to suffer quietly as I watched on.”
She finished by saying, “If I could have a word with the Cambodian delegation, I would tell them ‘Stop lying! Start implementing!’”
In the second week, Sarah Clarke was joined by WiPC Programme Director Ann Harrison, for PEN’s activities around the review of Eritrea and Viet Nam. We were fortunate to be able to sponsor two Eritrean writers in exile to attend these activities. These Eritrean writers spoke to diplomats from Switzerland, the USA and Canada about freedom of expression issues in the country (it’s fair to say that there isn’t any, with at least 28 journalists in detention, many for years, without any charge or trial and with rumours of the deaths of some of them). Afterwards, they spoke to journalists about their experiences of fleeing persecution and their assessment of the government’s claims during the review. As Dessale Berekhet Abraham put it in one interview, “I wish there had been a lie-detector device there; it was a mockery.”
Mr Pham Chi Dung, a Vietnamese journalist that PEN International sponsored to attend and monitor his country’s UPR was prevented by the Vietnamese authorities from flying to Geneva. On arrival at Ho Chi Minh airport, Pham’s passport was confiscated and he was ordered to return to his home city of Saigon for interrogation.
“In preventing a well-known journalist from traveling to the UN, Viet Nam breaks the very promises it made in order to secure its seat on the UN Human Rights Council,” said Marian Botsford Fraser, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee. “Preventing activists from travelling is a violation of their human rights, and this latest incident is part of a recent wave of arrests and harassment of dissident journalists and activists.”
PEN International participated in another side event on Viet Nam, which was elected late last year to the Human Rights Council, despite having a dreadful record of restricting freedom of expression. Entitled “With membership comes responsibility”, we heard from Vietnamese activists – one of whom was prevented from attending by the authorities but gave a recorded speech by video, as well as other NGOs about the situation of freedom of expression in the country. Ann Harrison spoke on a panel about the responsibility of the international community in pressing Viet Nam to uphold the pledges it made before being elected to protect and promote human rights.
Encouragingly, many diplomatic delegations made recommendations to all three governments during the reviews. The challenge for civil society and international NGOs like PEN over the coming four years are to try to ensure that the recommendations are implemented and that at the next review we will be applauding progress, and not pointing out how little has changed.