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Cambodia: pathway to an island of peace

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A general view of the Cambodian Peace Conference where the Paris Peace Accords were signed, on October 23, 1991. Erin Feferberg/AFP

Cambodia: pathway to an island of peace

By Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and a Peace Studies graduate from the International University of Japan.

The preamble to Cambodia’s constitution proudly declares that the Cambodian people have awoken to “build the nation up to again be an ‘Island of Peace’, based on a liberal multiparty democratic system, to guarantee human rights and the respect of law, and to be responsible for progressively developing the prosperity and glory of our nation”.

The noble ambitions enrhrined in our constitution came about as a result of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords – signed 26 years ago today – which helped bring an end to years of devastating conflict in Cambodia. The agreements supposedly heralded a new era for Cambodia, laying the foundations for a society based on respect for human rights and the rule of law, and embodying the aspirations of a war-weary populace, desparate to turn over a new leaf. The agreements constituted a binding promise to the Cambodian people – from their political leaders and from allies around the world – that they would be guaranteed the democratic, peaceful future they craved and deserved.

The Paris Accords created binding legal obligations upon the parties that remain in force to this day. Foremost among these obligations is the duty of the Cambodian government to maintain liberal multiparty democracy, respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to promote and protect the work of human rights defenders. Despite this, a severe crackdown against civil society, independent media and the political opposition has been undertaken in recent months, constituting multiple violations of these obligations.

The Paris Accords also place immediate obligations upon the signatories – especially France and Indonesia as co-chairs of the Paris Conference on Cambodia – to undertake appropriate consultations in order to address any violations of the agreeements. With civil society, independent media, and multiparty democracy all facing an existential crisis in Cambodia, it is time to ask: Will the signatories, including the Cambodian government, live up to their legal and moral obligations? Or will the the Paris Accords be foresaken, and the promises made to the Cambodian people broken?

Aside from the importance of the legal obligations enshrined in the Paris Accords and the constitution, this language used in these documents is especially powerful because it reflects the hopes and dreams of a people who had suffered for too long as a result of the decisions of powerful elites, both at home and abroad. The language conveys the sense of genuine hope that prevailed among the Cambodian people in 1991, and which has not been extinguished, despite myriad setbacks and challenges. Just as the legal obligations binding the signatories under the Paris Accords live on to this day, so too does the Cambodian people’s hunger for peace and democracy.

Many of the undemocratic actions taken by the authorities in recent months have been justified on the basis of the need to secure “peace”; however, the “island of peace” alluded to in the constitution is looking like a fading mirage. It is increasingly apparent that there are competing interpretations at play, around what constitutes true “peace” in Cambodia.

On one hand, there is the vision outlined in our constitution, which explicitly states that peace is based on liberal multiparty democracy and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. On the other hand, there is a theory of peace based on the absence of dissent, and the rule of strong men, rather than strong rule of law. This theory is favoured by those who would silence critical voices in order that they can rule in “peace”, without such bothersome impediments as a free press, independent civil society, genuine political opposition or a population unafraid of exercising their most basic freedoms. Ultimately, it will be for the Cambodian people to decide which defintion they prefer, and what peace means to them. But our constitution is explicit that true “peace” requires far more than the absence of bloodshed.

This raises the question of how this so-called island of peace would look in reality. A positive peace requires respect for the democratic will of the people, and meaningful dialogue with their chosen representatives. It requires strong and independent instututons that serve the people and the constitution, and not the interests of any individual, family or party, no matter how powerful. It involves the pursuit of a balanced foreign policy, maintaining dialogue and friendly relations with all nations, big and small. It is predicated upon true respect for human rights, beyond the mere ratifaction of treaties and empty words. It requires genuine efforts to promote and advance all human rights, and not just those which are perecived as unthreatening to the maintenance of political power.

Recalling the spirit of peace enshrined in our constitution and the Paris Accords, I end this piece with the words of Maha Ghosananda, known as the “Gandhi of Cambodia”:

The suffering of Cambodia has been deep.
From this suffering comes great Compassion.
Great Compassion makes a Peaceful Heart.
A peaceful Heart makes a Peaceful Person.
A Peaceful Person makes a Peaceful Community.
A Peaceful Community makes a Peaceful Nation.
And a Peaceful Nation makes a Peaceful World.
May all beings live in Happiness and Peace.

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