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Profile: Giving hope for two decades

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090223_05.jpg

As one of the first NGOs in Cambodia, Licadho has seen the landscape for civil society evolve - and says things are worse now than in 1992.

Photo by:
SOVANN PHILONG

Licadho founder and President Kek Galabru aims to promote respect for human rights in throughout the Kingdom and its institutions.

NGO FOCUS Licadho

  • Founded 1992
  • Personnel 160 staff and volunteers working in Phnom Penh office and 12 provincial offices
  • Mandate Licadho works with victims of human rights abuses, especially focussing on women and children who fall victim to domestic violence, rape and trafficking.
  • Funding The group is funded by a wide range of donors, including Operation a Day's Work (Finland), Danchurch Aid, Diakonia, ICCO, Danida, German Agro Action, USAID/EWMI, and the governments of Finland, Australia, Malta and the Netherlands, as well as private donors.

THE Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights (Licadho) was founded in 1992, just after the thawing of the Cold War and the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements brought to an end a decade of one-party rule by the People's Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea - the forerunner to today's Cambodian People's Party (CPP).

Kek Galabru, the organisation's founder and president, remembers well the difficulties of operating in the  overly bureaucratic and unstable climate of the early 1990s.

The organisation was one of the first nongovernmental organisations to be established under the UN's transitional administration, but even the presence of the international community could not prevent Licadho's early efforts from being mired in communist-era red tape.

"We had to sometimes wait eight months before we could get permission to visit the prisoners in jail," Galabru said. "It was only because the UN were in Cambodia that we got permission at all." In spite of the obstacles, Licadho had over 130 employees and had expanded into 12 provinces by 1998, and today it continues to work relentlessly with victims of illegal trafficking, domestic violence, land grabbing and forced evictions.

But as Galabru says, there is an endless amount of work still to be done. Licadho is still occasionally subjected to anonymous threats when dealing with high-profile cases involving well-connected authorities, she said, and in the aftermath of the Dey Krahorm eviction case last month, two members of staff were threatened via anonymous mobile phone messages.

"After 1993, we were given some freedom to operate as an NGO, but now in 2009 our democratic space is shrinking," she said, adding that the absence of democratic mechanisms in the country has meant that if these limits are overstepped, there can sometimes be serious ramifications.

"We do get very tired from our work, but if we give up on these people, what else will they have. ... we can provide assistance to the victims and give them a little more hope," she said.

Licadho provided legal, medical and financial support to such victims, explaining their rights under domestic law and the international agreements to which Cambodia is signatory. Licadho has also recently drawn attention to what it calls the "wrongful" 1,799-day imprisonment of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, convicted of the 2004 murder of union leader Chea Vichea. The pair have been freed on provisional release.

The group also advocates free education for all children, government-provided medical care and full compensation for communities facing eviction - all goals the organisation hopes will move Cambodia towards a more democratic form of government.

"We need to see freedom of access to information, freedom of assembly and a freedom of expression in Cambodia before we can call ourselves a democracy," she said.

Growing up, Galabru said she was surrounded by strong female role models who left a strong imprint on her human rights work. In 1958, her mother, Pung Peng Cheng, became the first woman to be elected to government in Cambodia.

"When I saw my mother working and serving the people of Cambodia, I knew I wanted to serve the people," she said. "But I did not want to work in the government, so I began studying medicine." Years later, with the help of her mother and late husband, she set up Licadho. In 2005, Galabru was one of 1,000 women nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, in recognition of the organisation's work in Cambodia.

"I was very grateful to my Cambodian colleagues who nominated me," she said.

"I hope that I can continue to serve the Cambodian people and not disappoint them."

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