Dr Pung Chhiv Kek
Ever since I became involved in the promotion of Human Rights Cambodia – and it is been 20 years now, with some successes and some strong disappointments – I have heard many times that the idea of human rights and their promotion was a luxury we could not afford, since we face more vital and urgent tasks developing the country.
The reality is precisely the opposite. Human rights are a basic and universal expectation of human beings, a state that has both moral and practical implications.
Human rights are also one of the strongest drivers of political and social changes in modern times and have been so since the end of World War II. And forgetting human rights in the process of development will inevitably lead to failure and may even prove catastrophic with the revival of hatred and fighting.
1) Human rights are not just an idea. They are universal and related to basic needs of human beings.
English philosophers were the first to elaborate on the human rights concept. Starting from practical needs of the individuals, they enlarged their thinking to a vast moral and philosophical vision.
In the 17th century Thomas Hobbes argued that the rights of citizens included the right to provide food, clothing and shelter for themselves, and the right to be protected from harm or injury. People also had the right to be allowed to engage in lawful commerce, the right to educate their children, the right to legal protection of their health and safety, the right to legal protection of their property.
In addition, Thomas Hobbes said the basic principles of behaviour for individuals and for the state stemmed from a universal and absolute prescription recognised by all religions and civilizations: Do not act toward others in a manner in which you would not want them to act toward you.
This prescription, called the “Golden Rule”, includes equity, justice, mercy and humility. It has its roots in a wide range of world cultures and can be found in the beliefs of ancient Egypt and Greece, in Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and Islam.
The Buddhism version of the “Golden Rule” appears in two simple and powerful sayings: “Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill”; “One who, while himself seeking happiness, oppresses with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will not attain happiness hereafter.”
Hobbes described these universal moral laws as “divine laws”, which refers to the absolute and, so to say “non-negotiable”, character of human rights prescriptions. John Locke, another 17th century philosopher, argued as well about the importance of a civil society to resolve conflicts in a non-violent way with the help of the government. Locke also advocated governmental separation of powers.
2) The powerful influence of human rights ideas throughout the world.
These ideas of justice, equity, fair government by negotiation rather than by coercion, based on respecting individuals’ rights to seek self-development, spread across Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. They inspired the overthrow of absolute powers. They also formed the basis of the constitution of the United States.
Since 1948 the United Nations formally defined human rights in a way that is a direct consequence of those 17th century European philosophers. In summary, they refer to the obligation of the states to secure harmony and order in a peaceful way and to provide help and protection to individuals to allow them to seek self-development and personal accomplishment within the framework of the state of law.
Despite its complexity and numerous obstacles, the drive has proven irresistible.
They emphasised dignity and equality in rights, particularly liberty, freedom of speech, religion and association; security; equality before the law; and protection from slavery, from injustice and from discrimination. They also emphasised the rights to access to public services, education and health and the rights to express political choices through regularly organised free and fair elections.
Today democracy and good governance have become accepted globally as forms of managing a society and running a government. This type of political system delivers human security and freedom and creates an environment for equitable development in young, democratising countries.
3) Human Rights are an absolute prerequisite for individual development.
But after 20 years, numerous reports show the advance of human rights in new and restored democracies has not delivered the prospects that were initially expected. Research has shown stagnation and distortion in the electoral process, less democracy and at times signs of electoral fraud and brutal power politics.
Recent financial crises have shown that economic growth rates in developing countries remain fragile and many countries are attracting lower rates of private investment.
Unemployment and poverty, inequality and corruption threaten both the political and economic stability of new democracies and require greater efforts to support both human rights and balanced development.
If we analyse the basic requirements for human rights, we could depict them as a social contract in which the individuals are obliged to obey the law, provided this law is equally and fairly implemented in an independent way and in which the state has the obligation to guarantee freedom and to provide protection, security, public services, health and education to each individual.
For a country like Cambodia, whose lack of human resources is dramatic and which poses a huge obstacle to our development, the notion of the state having to care for each individual is crucial. The very characteristic of a mature democracy is the ability of the government to promote the development of all its citizens individually, regardless of gender, social origin or the fortunes of their parents.
That means at the very least equal access to education and health. In our country, where teachers and public doctors are underpaid, where girls are still put to work at a young age to contribute to their families’ incomes, much more needs to be done in these matters.
If we consider the rate of internet penetration – a good indicator of human development, access to education and information – then compared with other Asian countries, Cambodia is dramatically backward with a rate of only 0.5 percent.
Only Myanmar and Bangladesh are in a worse position with internet penetration of 0.2 percent and 0.4 percent. Our neighbours have recently made rapid progress: Vietnam has reached 27.1 percent and Thailand 26.3 percent. The average internet penetration rate in Asia is 21.5 percent. That compares with a rate of 58.4 percent in Europe and 77.4 percent in North America.
In other words, Cambodia needs more effort to promote individual development in order to adjust its population to its environment and the global challenges.
4) Respecting human rights is a condition for a stable and harmonious society and balanced development.
If human rights are crucial to promote individual development and to increase the quality of human resources, which are essential to modernise the country, then harmonious and balanced development depends closely on the right to freedom of opinion and of expression. This includes the freedom to share opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
There are many places in the world without governmental checks and balances, without checks and balances, without independent justice, without the ability to protect free speech and the dissemination of constructive critics and ideas. These countries face a high risk of one-sided development that leaves behind the uneducated and the poor to the exclusive profit of a small minority.
In such society, social harmony often deteriorates, doomed by corruption and nepotism.
The income gap between cities and the countryside, between the rich and poor, are important factors of social resentment and instability. They are also the most obvious sign that the social contract between government and society is in jeopardy.
In that respect human rights, which guarantee free and constructive criticism, are a relevant and efficient safety valve against social unrest.
Today the protection and promotion of human rights throughout the world, along with sustainable and harmonious development, rely on the efforts of governments, nongovernmental organisations and individual citizens.
Together with the government and the civil society we should work to guarantee that all aspects of our young democracy remain sound and unflawed.
That requires a sound constitution recognised by all; the rule of law, with equitable access to justice for everyone; the guarantee of civil and political, as well as social economic and cultural rights, without consideration of gender or wealth.
It also means free and fair elections, guaranteed by an independent body; the protection of the rights of political parties to make proposals and to deliver constructive criticism; accountability and transparency of the government; civilian control of the military police and the army – which should be neutral and not involved in business – a minimising of corruption; and free access to information through independent, professional and well educated media.
Dr Pung Chhiv Kek is
President and founder,
Cambodian League for the Promotion & Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO).