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A responsibility to protect?

Kingdom’s dark past could help it stem atrocities and crimes in the region, experts say

CAMBODIA should take a leading role in promoting policies to prevent genocide and other war crimes in the region, but this effort could be hindered by the strong influence of militaries in many Southeast Asian countries and a general lack of political will, said participants at a conference Wednesday.

“Cambodia is a very good country to start this process because they have experienced genocide, and the [Khmer Rouge tribunal] can serve as an example and learning experience,” said Noel Morada, executive director of the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

“But if there is no political will, no budget, no mandate, [this policy] is very difficult to implement.”

The centre, which is holding a two-day conference in the capital, promotes the “responsibility to protect”, a principle first agreed to by UN member states in 2005 that countries have an obligation to protect their citizens from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. In the event that a country fails to do so, UN member states must intervene, the principle states.

“[Cambodia’s] historical experience under the Khmer Rouge and the ongoing trial should be a general starting point for the proposal of an ASEAN conference on genocide,” Morada said.

The fact that Cambodia is the only Southeast Asian country to have ratified the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court (ICC), is further evidence of its ability to lead on this issue, he said.

Son Chhay, a Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker, said that the role of the military in many Southeast Asian countries could limit the success of R2P.

“Military institutions in Southeast Asian countries are an obstacle to putting in place policies that protect the people,” and atrocities have often been committed by police or soldiers with the approval of their governments, he said.

“It is no different in the case of Cambodia. A lot of crimes connected with the land-grabbing have been committed by the military,” he added.

He said that a controversial military-private sector partnership programme established by Prime Minister Hun Sen in February is an example of military overreach.

Chheang Vannarith, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said the military should be trained in areas including human rights, humanitarian law and R2P.

“If the military understands these concepts ... they can be more responsible,” he said.

Chheang Vannarith said the notion of inviolable state sovereignty, which forms the traditional basis of interstate relations, poses challenges in reforming ASEAN states such as Myanmar.

“There is not much room to intervene because of sovereignty,” he said. “Even the UN cannot do anything, let alone ASEAN. What we can do is engage countries like Myanmar and form a partnership.”

But Son Chhay said that Cambodia’s tumultuous past gives it the clout needed to “raise questions” with other ASEAN countries.

“We can push Than Shwe and the junta to be more accountable,” he said.



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