Confounding all predictions of violence and poor voter turnout, six days of voting
for Cambodia's first national election in 21 years concluded relatively peacefully
on May 28 with an astounding 90-plus percent voter turnout and relatively few incidents
of violence or foul play. But the euphoria surrounding the comparatively smooth conduct
of the elections belies an increasingly grim human rights situation in the months
leading up to the opening of the polls and holds no promises for a calm future.
Dennis Mcnamaara, director of UNTAC'S Human Rights Component, acknowledged that prior
to the elections the human rights situation "was not satisfactory, that the
political violence was too high and harassment and intimidation too widespread."
However, he said that human rights conditions were only one element in the assessment
of the overall "freeness and fairness" of the elections to be made by UNTAC
Special Representative Yasushi Akashi.
The day before the polls opened, the special representative discussed his assessment
of the pre-electoral period. Akashi acknowledged that conditions leading up to the
voting were not ideal, that "there was a lot of violence, some of it political,
some of it not, but still people getting killed." But he considered conditions
satisfactory enough to assess the pre-electoral period as "relatively free and
Although the 1999 Paris peace accords called for UNTAC to establish a "neutral
political environment" as a precondition to holding "free and fair"
election, the number and seriousness of violent incidents on the eve of voting virtually
precluded such an environment.
According to a report on political violence compiled by UNTAC's Human Rights section,
in just the 10 weeks preceding the elections there were 200 deaths, 338 injuries,
and 114 abductions that UNTAC investigations determined to be "politically motivated."
Khmer Rouge forces were deemed responsible for 131 of those deaths, 250 injuries,
and 53 abductions, while State of Cambodia police or military forces were cited for
15 deaths and 9 injuries. McNamara said these were only the incidents where UNTAC's
investigations had identified the attackers. He said that numerous additional "random
attacks and executions by unidentified groups, which happen all the time," were
investigated and classified by UNTAC as "arbitrary" killings.
In addition, Mcnamara said there were "numerous, almost systematic, attacks
on political party offices or serious acts of harassment and intimidation" in
the pre-election period. Nonetheless, he said violence did not absolutely preclude
holding free elections, although the conditions were not ideal. "It is possible
to have a situation of widespread political violence in which the population nonetheless
goes out and votes," McNamara said, adding that may be the case in Cambodia.
Expressing his admiration for the courage of the Cambodian people, McNamara said:
"Despite pressure and intimidation from all sides, Cambodians went out and voted
in massive numbers. In sum, the human rights situation is not satisfactory, there
continues to be a lot of need for improvement," he concluded, "but it's
not an absolute bar to the electoral process."
Asked what might be considered the "cut-off point" in the number of political
murders before Special Representative Akashi would consider withholding his overall
"free and fair" recommendation, McNamara said that there were was no arbitrary
"acceptable" number of murders. "One murder is one too many,"
he said, but added that human rights was one part, albeit an important part, of an
"overall objective assessment of the situation" to he made after the vote
Cambodian human rights activists were less certain that the violence did not affect
the voting process. At a press conference on May 26, midway through the six days
of voting, a panel of Cambodian human rights groups held a press conference to relate
their observations. "The elections are not free and fair," said Srey Chan
Phalara, president of Human Rights and Community Outreach. "The free atmosphere
was only found in Phnom Penh, while in the countryside people faced more difficulties.
People who voted were concerned about the presence of government authorities at the
polling booths. Especially in Kompong Chhnang provincial town, I was told that people
were scared to vote in nearby polling stations so they chose to go to other locations,"
His colleague Kek Galabru, president of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and
Defense of Human Rights, had a slightly less pessimistic view. "Of course, for
us, the elections are not 100 percent free and fair. But I think we have to accept
them because we were expecting far worse," she said.
UNTAC has been widely criticized for failing to stop political attacks or punish
the perpetrators after they had been identified. An Asia Watch report on human rights
abuses in Cambodia, released on May 19, roundly criticized UNTAC and the international
community for "their failure to hold the different parties to the conflict accountable
for serious human rights abuses." The Asia Watch report said that "the
lesson best learned after 17 months of U.N. administration is that there is no punishment
for gross abuses."
McNamara responded that the Asia Watch report "did not give a balanced assessment
of the situation." He stressed that the Paris accords make clear that "the
responsibility for the maintenance of law and order rests with the Cambodian parties."
He also pointed out that UNTAC has made considerable progress in certain areas, in
addition to its on-going human rights education programs, notably reforming prison
conditions and adoption of a penal code, encouraging Cambodia to sign on to the major
international human rights agreements, and assisting in the establishment of several
indigenous human rights organizations.
As thoughts turn to the post electoral period, many wonder what will happen once
the results are announced, particularly with the unresolved question of a potential
transfer of power. Questioned about what various different electoral results might
mean for the human rights situation, McNamara said, "One could speculate endlessly
what might happen with different coalitions." Despite the calmer-than-expected
voting process, McNamara acknowledged that there "will continue to be serious
human rights considerations in Cambodia in the foreseeable future." In order
to safeguard human rights in the post-electoral period he described several areas
needing major reform as part of the overall long-term institution-building process.
"This means building a judicial system so that courts function fairly and independently,
which they don't now. The police have to be retrained to function within a lawful
constraint within the judicial system. The civil service has to be separated from
the parties. All of these things have to be put in place for a civil society governed
by law," McNamara explained. He said that even the basic concept of public officials
being held accountable for their actions has yet to take root.
Both UNTAC and its critics agree that it was unrealistic to expect, given Cambodia's
recent history, that UNTAC would have transformed the country into a law-abiding,
human rights-respecting society in the short period since the signing of the Paris
peace accords. The Asia Watch report called on UNTAC to act with renewed vigor during
its remaining three months.
Before its mandate expires, UNTAC aims to solidify its human rights gains by helping
to establish a human rights network that will be able to survive on its own after
the UN forces depart. In addition to Asian human rights groups who have come together
to support Cambodian efforts, five indigenous human rights organizations have been
established. By their own calculations, nationwide the human rights groups claim
a total of 150,000 members.
Aware of Cambodian's apprehension about the uncertain future, McNamara said, "They're
concerned about the post-UNTAC period, as we are. There's a responsibility here that
we have raised expectations by encouraging Cambodians to stand up for their rights,
challenge the authorities if necessary. But with that goes some responsibility not
to abandon the process."
He said the local human rights groups had made it very clear that they wanted UN
sponsorship, to be "under a UN flag." As an indication of the international
community's commitment to the future of Cambodia, the UN Commission on Human Rights
in Geneva has authorized the establishment of a Center for Human Rights in Cambodia,
and a special representative for human rights will also be appointed. In addition,
the Human Rights Trust Fund, established last October, will provide funding so that
educational projects will continue after UNTAC leaves Cambodia. "Regardless,
there will be a post-UNTAC human rights presence in Cambodia," McNamara said.