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Freedom versus responsiblity

H uman rights in Cambodia - too many rights and freedoms, or too little respect for the rules? Hassan AbuKasem debates

the issue.

I wish to focus my attention on the controversy surrounding the interpretation of the terms "rights and freedoms

(or liberty)" by local Cambodian intelligentsia, and by Cambodian standards. I hope this piece will invite

further debate on the subject in a constructive and civilized manner. At the same time I do not pretend to be an

expert on human rights and freedoms. I will only share my opinion and experiences with local human rights activists

as I observe how the Cambodians interpret and exercise their rights and freedoms.

In a country of full-grown democracy, citizens exercise their rights and freedoms, as defined and protected under

the constitution, to express their views against government policies without fear of reprisal by their elected

leaders. This is because the citizens believe in the concept that people were born free and "endowed with

certain inalienable rights."

But the words "rights and freedoms" seem to have taken on new and vague - and often twisted - meanings

at every turn, from one generation or interest group to another, depending on who we are talking to.

When the word "right" for humans is rendered an unreasonably vague definition and misunderstood, the

freedom of expressing oneself may be exercised improperly, infringing on others' rights. For example, if one expresses

his anger by verbally insulting a revered figure in public, claiming that this is his guaranteed right to do so,

he is wrong unless he is insane. This kind of behavior, which disturbs the peace at a particular place, is not

even permitted in the "free and democratic" America.

How should rights and freedoms be exercised to avoid misunderstandings, which may lead to animosities and distrust

between the authorities and the common people or between ordinary citizens? Who should have more or less rights

and freedoms? The Cambodians, especially those in the print media, must understand the fundamental meanings of

the two words, and the purpose of actions between people, if they seek to live in peace with one another.

"Right," based on the second definition given in Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, means "the

power or privilege to which one is justly entitled." In my view, one may apply it to promote his interests

as a rightful citizen and the interests of the nation as a whole in a legitimate, moral and ethical manner, whether

such right is granted by God or by someone of authority.

A right is generally used by someone for the purpose of demanding something he or she ought to have but does not

get. The exercise of a person's right, "to which they are entitled," should be in line with the moral

code of conduct and the established legal standard, so a person would not offend other individuals who have the

same and equal rights. Right is a two-way street.

In order to ensure public order and safety and the well-being of the society at large, a law governing individual

rights must be in place; it must be defined and interpreted unambiguously - and enforced impartially - to prevent

one individual or group from having more rights than another.

More obvious, citizens of a civilized country usually refer their disputes on such matters as individual rights

to the constitution, or the law of the land, to guarantee the citizens fair and equal treatment before the law.

If an individual or a group is allowed to possess greater rights, those with lesser rights may inevitably be victimized.

To stretch the meaning of "God-given" rights to the limit, the rights activists in developed countries

also work to protect and defend the rights of animals, trees, rivers, the air, etc. for they believe all these

have lives; thus, their rights ought to be protected.

However, when each of us asks unceasingly for more and more rights for ourselves, we will find ourselves having

redundant rights, and we may not be able to use all of them in the appropriate way. As a result, these rights may

prove meaningless to us and, in turn, be conducive to abuses of other individuals' rights. Here in Cambodia, as

I have heard and seen, some who have acquired their rights from UNTAC's school of thought simply use them as a

tool to irritate or cause psychological harm to other people. Malicious acerbity, acrimonious gossip, arbitrary

charges, preposterous statements, derisive stories/ drawings, etc., not to mention poor vocabulary, sentence structure,

grammar and misspellings, appear in most local, privately-funded Khmer-language newspapers everyday. They contain

more personal opinions and commentaries than real news stories, and are based largely on rumors, not research or

analysis. Very few people in present-day Cambodia, regardless of their status, commit themselves to the rule of

law or standard of decency; some just hold that "the end justifies the means."

In other instances, government or popular actions inappropriately taken against a particular institution, business

or individual appear to be encouraged by high-ranking officials or defended by the powerful, who swore to protect

the lives and property of the powerless. A group of armed police officers, who are supposed to cooperate with the

court to enforce the law, surrounded a prosecutor's house and threatened the King-appointed chief law enforcement

officer because he might have prosecuted one of their relatives. A crowd of angry demonstrators ransacked the office

of a local Cambodian newspaper, and their action was applauded at the highest level of government. A senior government

official who deplored the incident placed himself (squarely) on a collision course with his superior. All this

leads people to assume that when a person feels unhappy with someone's action, he can take the law into his own

hands in the name of exercising his right and freedom.

Cambodians seem to experience a sense of uncertainty as to how they should exercise their individual "rights

and freedoms" in the strictest sense, in what context and circumstance, and whether their rights and freedoms

should supersede the rule of law. Some express themselves in the form of "liberty and license," rather

than "right and freedom," which often leads to a violation of rules or standard practice.

The historic UN mission in Cambodia brought about a false sense of equal rights and freedoms, fair legal standards,

social and economic parity and political security for the people it was supposed to save.

The legal system in this country - from the administration of civil and criminal justice to the application of

electoral law - is based primarily on UNTAC's pre-set formulae and Western concepts, which may or may not be practicable

in Cambodian society. Ill-defined UNTAC and Western prescriptions on how to run Cambodia, coupled with the indistinct

language of the Constitution, leave room for free or contradictory interpretation and throw ordinary Cambodians

into a state of confusion and soul-searching.

When MP Sam Rainsy was expelled from the National Assembly, the government said its decision for the expulsion

was based on UNTAC's or the UN's legal bible, not the Constitution. Rainsy's supporters claimed the government

had no right to expel an MP unless people in his district petitioned to have him removed for flagrant violation

of law. The government insisted that it had the right to expel an MP - by removing him from the party membership

- because he was elected through the party.

Legal experts, who helped draft the electoral law, voiced their opposition to the government's action for an application

of the law that they themselves wanted Cambodians to use. In Rainsy's case the government's right is guaranteed

and protected, but the MP's is not.

People around the globe regardless of age, sex, national origin, social status and religious belief yearn for basic

rights and freedoms, and some even trade their lives if they are deprived of their rights and freedoms.

For humans, rights and freedoms are valuable only when they are exercised scrupulously, correctly and responsibly.

If each citizen is not ready to undertake his duty and responsibility in utilizing basic rights and freedoms towards

his fellow citizens, I think limited rights and freedoms (i.e. within the constraint of defined rules of law) would

be safer than a free rein. This is in no way to suggest that government should be granted excessive rights and

unlimited power.

In Cambodia today the local intelligentsia, through newspapers, is pressing the government to adopt and embrace

Western concepts and practices on human right and freedoms in virtually every detail of the words. They interpret

the words "Siddhi" (Right) and "Serei Phiap" (Freedom) liberally. The young and the old, the

ruling and the ruled, the parents and the children, according to this interpretation, have no more nor less rights

and freedoms. When this new mentality develops without bounds, the unique national trait found in Khmer culture,

such as humbleness, politeness, mutual respect, etc., will disappear in the long run. Cambodia will then the thrown

into atavism, marked with arrogance, uncivilized behavior, cynicism and anarchy.

Cambodia's citizens should be encouraged to respect and obey their leader. The elected in turn should be lenient

and cautious in responding to legitimate, constructive popular criticism and truthful comments, since they have

the power and tools to express their wills.

A good leader exercises his authority justly, and discharges his duties faithfully, so as not to violate the guaranteed

rights and freedoms of his people. At the same time, he does not shy away from the truth.

- Hassan Abukasem, a native of Cambodia, is executive director of Cambodia Development International, a non-profit

organization based in Washington DC.

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