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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - From the bullet to the ballot

From the bullet to the ballot

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Christophe Peschoux, local head of UN's Human Rights office, on why tension and dialogue are two sides of the same coin

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Tracey Shelton

Christophe Peschoux speaking at Human Rights Day on December 10th in Phnom Penh.

What is important to an understanding of human rights?

There are two key factors. First, an element of tension is always present - human rights are never given, they have to be conquered. Second, dialogue and cooperation is essential, and I think Human Rights Day yesterday, given that it is the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, provides an opportunity for all of us - government, civil society organisations, citizens, international actors, for us at this office - to reflect on what has been achieved, to take stock of progress, to look at issues in an honest manner and determine how to exercise our respective responsibilities to address these issues. It is an opportunity for reflection, a chance to assess what remains to be done and, crucially, how to do it.

Is there a consensus on how to proceed?

I don't think there is an emerging consensus yet. I think one is in the making but it requires several ingredients. First, a commitment to honesty in identifying what are the real issues. This is a starting point. If there is no recognition of what the problems are, there is no way to advance. Second, there has to be a commitment to establish the rule of law in a non-discriminatory manner, to apply the principle of equality of all before the law. Third, there needs to be a commitment to correct abuses and implement solutions, and this requires political will. It is not enough to pay lip service once a year on the 10th of December to human rights principles and then forget for the rest of the year. And then, the last ingredient - the willingness to cooperate with others on these difficult issues, and here again, this will to cooperate will include an element of tension and also dialogue. The same tension and dialogue as before, as these are two faces of the same coin in human rights progress.

So how is Cambodia doing?

A lot of progress has been made - compare what is now to what it was like in the early 1990s after three decades of war, and you see Cambodia is a different place. There has been a reduction of political violence, and its replacement by peaceful changes of government - an evolution from the bullet to the ballot. You have to remember that in 1970 there was the violent overthrow of the monarchy, in 1975 the brutal overthrow of the Republic, and then in 1979 the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge. Against this background, now there is an election system - it is a step forward. Now, the election system itself must be improved so it really reflects the genuine will of the people. But in Cambodia, they have only had this system for 15 years. In other countries, they have had it for 200 years and we can still see where the problems are. We have to be reasonable.

Other than elections, how have things improved?

Since 1993, numerous laws have been adopted and many contain very good human rights provisions. This is a legal framework that will govern the country for years to come. It is important to have good laws, as Cambodia does, at the beginning. Institutions have been rebuilt in every field, and they are being strengthened after the KR erased them. Another positive  economic development has been engineered by encouraging national and foreign investment. That has created more wealth, but more wealth for a minority only. But this has created a small middle class, and sooner or later they will impact the Kingdom's political development.

Does the growing gap between rich and poor pose a threat to human rights development?

The gap between rich and poor, between cities and countryside, is important. In that respect, we have a lot of talk about poverty reduction and double-digit growth. But whose growth? What growth? I travel 30km from Phnom Penh and I don't see that life there has changed much. The most visible signs of change - tiles on the roof, maybe a few more motorbikes, a few cars in the richest areas, but that is basically it. Access to education and medical care are still very problematic. And we must remember a key factor that brought about the Khmer Rouge was the very deep divide between the city and the countryside.

What about the political climate?

There is no more law of the gun, and this is very positive. The recent election was the least violent since 1993. One very positive thing is that there is a vibrant civil society - active in all spheres. Cambodia, probably with Thailand, is one of the freest countries in the region for NGOs to operate. This has to be recognised. These are some of the most positive elements of the last 15 years. These should be acknowledged, and we should rejoice - overall, Cambodia is a happier place for Cambodians to live.

Is there a flip side?

There is no room for complacency. When one travels into the country, the progress, economically, socially, is very slow. One overarching element is that when there are good laws, they are too often not implemented, or poorly implemented when not completely ignored. This is the main threat to the rule of law - the poor implementation of existing laws. Institutions are still weak and as their primary role is to implement laws, now they don't do or they do poorly. Economic development needs to be more seriously regulated. So it becomes not only economic development but human development. This means better sharing of resources across society to bridge the growing gap between the poor and the rich, the city and the country. Also, land disputes - this is an issue that affects millions of Cambodians. Here, there is a lot of effort by government institutions at all levels to address many of these conflicts. But I am convinced that more could, should and can be done with the aim to implement the land law effectively and ensure the poorest have security of tenure. Another related issue is the continued number of arrests of community representatives and their imprisonment in spite of repeated calls by the prime minister that farmers not be arrested in the context of land disputes. Still, prosecutors acting under the influence of the rich and powerful arrest the weakest and most defenceless, who are simply trying to protect their rights.

So no more rule of the gun?

It has receded, but it is not the rule of law yet. It is a mix of the rule of law and the rule of the dollar. Sometimes, it's hard to distinguish what it is. If you have money, you can buy anything - land, government buildings, women, children.

What about freedom of expression?

I am not sure of the cause, but I had observed slow but steady progress until 2005, and now there is regression to the point that one barely sees a peaceful demonstration - every request is denied. The government is afraid that things could slip, but too often, this is an irrational fear. It is not based on a reasonable analysis.

What about press freedom?

I thought, until July, that the killing of journalists was a thing of the past. For several years no journalists have been killed - then suddenly, Khim Sambo and his son. So what to make of this - is it a return of an old trend or is it an exception? I hope the latter, but it has a disastrous effect on freedom of the media here.

Any final concerns?

The poor in the capital who continue to be regarded by authorities as a stain on their efforts to beautify the capital. My concern is that when you don't look at the poor as if they are humans, you lay the groundwork for treating them as sub-humans. It is a dangerous, a slippery slope - to deny a person basic recognition as a human being. Arresting, loading people on trucks before a celebration is outrageous - and in the name of beauty? Where is the beauty? It is very ugly.

So what should happen from here?

I think it is high time government and the civil society stopped looking at each other as enemies but, instead, as potential partners. I think the reconstruction of the social fabric of the Cambodian home requires the efforts and contribution of everybody. But still, these negative mutual perceptions persist, which undermines the possibility of dialogue. The government is not a monster and the NGOs are not its enemy. These are oversimplifications which do not help. So my hope, as head of this office, is that the next year, and maybe the next decade to come, will be an era of improved dialogue and cooperation between government and civil society. And our office will not spare any efforts to facilitate this, providing there is willingness on both sides to work together. Again, there will be a tension, but there has to be cooperation. Cooperation doesn't mean giving up. It means working on real issues. Protecting people and their rights is the ultimate objective.

Interview by CAT BARTON 

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