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Rights activists must support communities

Dear Editor,

In the article “UN backs economic diversity in rural areas” (July 1, 2010), The Phnom Penh Post reported on the recent United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) report that advocates for the decentralisation of development. The report notes how a “‘localised’ policy approach could be [a] method to stimulate countryside economic growth, therefore raising populations out of poverty”. The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) believes that this approach to development should be applied to human rights.

The human rights field in Cambodia has at times been marked by NGOs taking a top-down approach to human rights advocacy, with communities and smaller community-based organisations led rather than empowered. Article 35 of the Constitution of Cambodia provides for “the right to participate actively in the political, economic and cultural life of the nation.” Civil society is not a small collection of national NGOs based in Phnom Penh; rather, it is all those people who seek to exercise this constitutional right, individually or as part of an organisation or informal group, making up society but distinct from the state.

As the UNCDF notes that the “current mainstream policy approach to rural development … [is] not sufficient to promote local economic development”, the CCHR posits that centre-led initiatives to promoting human rights can often suffocate civic-driven change. In the past, ‘one size fits all’ initiatives have been developed and applied to communities throughout Cambodia, with local conditions and needs often ignored. This approach has often failed to improve respect for human rights.

Similar to the development approach advocated by UNDCF, CCHR supports the localisation of human rights advocacy to give rise to nuanced local approaches that reflect the differing needs and priorities of communities throughout Cambodia. Communities and local organisations will not always have the skills and resources to undertake this localised advocacy. There is therefore an important role for national NGOs to play in empowering and assisting these communities where requested. For example, CCHR trains communities on human rights in the context of localised conflict; we train community- and sector-based organisations on monitoring and documenting human-rights violations in their localities or according to their area of focus; and we secure resources for human-rights defenders under threat, to empower them to help their own communities. Meanwhile, aside from implementing initiatives to empower, there will still be an important role for larger national [effort] to undertake research and develop policy as a basis for evidence-based advocacy for policy, structural and legislative changes. CCHR sees these approaches as key to the future of human rights advocacy in Cambodia.

Ou Virak, president
Rupert Abbott
Director of development, CCHR
Phnom Penh

Send letters to: newsroom@phnompenhpost.com or PO?Box 146, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The Post reserves the right to edit letters to a shorter length. The views expressed above are solely the author’s and do not reflect any positions taken by The Phnom Penh Post.

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