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Cambodia Failed To Protect Rural Woman Human Rights Defender And Violated Her Rights, UN Committee Finds

GENEVA (27 June 2023) – The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) found that Cambodia’s lack of action to protect a rural woman rights defender from forced eviction and threat by a land developer, as well as the subsequent criminal charges and harassment by the authorities, had constituted multiple rights violations.

The Committee issued its decision today after reviewing the complaint filed by Ms X (pseudonym), who has been at the forefront of protests in a land dispute involving KDC International, a development company that had laid claim to Ms X’s and the community’s land.

“This case highlights the unequal access to land and tenure security of rural women in Cambodia,” said Committee member Nahla Haidar. “For more than a decade, Ms X had worked tirelessly to defend her community’s land rights despite facing threats and retaliation from KDC International and unfair treatment from the Cambodian judiciary,” she added.

Ms X has been a resident of the rural La Peang village in the Ta Ches commune of Kampong Chhnang Province in Cambodia since she moved to the village in 2004 with her husband. The couple held a legal land title.

In 2006, workers from KDC International, accompanied by police officers but without proof of ownership, dug a ditch around the community land, preventing residents from farming and accessing 14 of their houses. In 2008, without prior notice, KDC International workers destroyed the village houses and surrounding farmland, including the house of Ms X and her husband. Her family's land ownership documents were lost in the process.

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Ms X was interrogated by the police on charges of incitement to violence during protests after a complaint by KDC International. Fearing arrest, Ms X and her family fled to Thailand but were forcibly returned to Cambodia, where she continued defending her community’s interests. In 2013, an anonymous letter threatening her with death was posted on the wall of her house. In 2014, KDC International workers fenced off 1.5 hectares of Ms X’s properties. The land walled off by KDC International has remained undeveloped since then. In 2017, Ms X was summoned to court in a defamation case, without knowing the factual basis for the charges against her.

As her many petitions before various courts in Cambodia were left unanswered, Ms X brought her case to the Committee, claiming her rights under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women had been violated.

The Committee, while regretting that it did not receive observations from the State party, considered that the Cambodian authorities failed to ensure that KDC International did not discriminate against Ms X and took no action to protect Ms X from the violence committed against her by the developer.

The Committee emphasised that forced eviction is not a gender-neutral phenomenon, but rather disproportionately affects women. “As a rural woman, a human rights defender and a mother, Ms X’s life has been turned upside down during the process of defending her land. In addition to losing her property and the home for her children, she was also unable to continue working as a teacher and forced to relocate to a place lacking basic infrastructure such as sanitary,” Haidar said.

The Committee determined that Cambodia had further failed its obligation to comply with the provisions of the Convention to take into account the particular problems faced by rural women and the significant roles which rural women play in the economic survival of their families, and to ensure their rights to participate in land planning and development.

The Committee also found that the State party’s proceedings against Ms X constituted reprisals for her activism, which prevented her from continuing to defend her community’s interests.

It requested that Cambodia provide full reparation to Ms X, ensure that she can enjoy her rightful access to land, and she can defend the interests of her community safely and freely. The Committee also asked Cambodia to ensure that acquisitions of rural land for economic and other concessions follow due process including free, prior and informed consent and thorough and impartial reviews of any claims of ownership made by women.

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