Donors must demand that Cambodia respect rights

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 April, 2006, 12:00am

In a country that suffered the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge and 10 years of occupation by the Vietnamese, human rights can seem relative. The scars of Cambodia's recent past still run deep. The growth of democracy is stalled but few people are willing to speak out. Those who do risk arrest or being forced into exile.

The international community therefore has an important role to play in promoting the rights and fundamental freedoms envisaged in the 18-nation Paris accords of 1991, which mapped out a fresh start for a nation with a tragic past. These values have been whittled away as Prime Minister Hun Sen consolidates a near monopoly of power and abuses go unchecked by a viable opposition or an independent judiciary. Unfortunately, Hun Sen treats the United Nations in much the same way as he has stamped out effective opposition. Four consecutive UN envoys for human rights have come under sustained and sometimes personal attacks over their critical reports on Cambodia.

Now Hun Sen has demanded that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan sack the current UN human-rights envoy for Cambodia, Hong Kong-based Professor Yash Ghai, for accusing him of running the country with an iron fist. He described UN officials as 'tourists' and said Professor Ghai - who has helped draft the constitutions of 15 countries and until recently was professor of constitutional law at Hong Kong University - was 'deranged' and should be sacked. This outburst did nothing to undermine Professor Ghai's claim that power in Cambodia is concentrated in one pair of hands.

However, his criticism of human rights in Cambodia also contained a message for the donor countries - among them the United States, Japan and Australia - who prop up Cambodia's economy. This was that it is time to leverage their role as 'bankers' to pressure the government to abide by its constitutional commitments.

An opportunity to do just that arose last month, in talks with Cambodian officials that sealed US$601 million in funding this year. Foremost among the donors' demands should have been restoring the rule of law, real progress towards democracy and permitting human rights.

There is some evidence that Cambodia's leaders are not indifferent to international opinion when that would seem unwise. For example, ahead of the critical funding talks, they pardoned two opposition politicians jailed for trying to overthrow the government, and released five rights activists who face defamation charges for criticising the government.

These gestures may have heightened cynicism about the democratic process. But they suggest the donors should now demand concrete results from an investment in building democracy that totals US$7.5 billion over 15 years.

This may be the best hope of making a difference to the 14 million people of this impoverished nation.