Today, Cambodia’s rights record will be reviewed in the framework of the “Universal Periodic Review” (UPR) at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. The UPR is the only opportunity the international community has to engage on human rights with some states.
But not with Cambodia.
In addition to field presence of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, frequent reports by the latter and reviews by UN expert bodies, Cambodia has been on the agenda of the Human Rights Council (HRC), and that of its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights, for two decades.
Following the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, a Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General (now called Special Rapporteur) was appointed to monitor the country’s human rights situation.
Last September, the HRC extended the mandate held by Professor Surya Subedi, the current Special Rapporteur, for two years. NGOs that pushed for stronger language to be included in the HRC resolution were criticised for their alleged lack of constructiveness.
The end result was a text that failed to mention human rights violations for which the Cambodian authorities are responsible, ranging from arbitrary arrests and violence against peaceful demonstrators, to brutal forced evictions.
The resolution welcomed “efforts and progress” made by the government and encouraged it to pursue judicial and land reform. It simply stressed the need for it to “continue to enhance its efforts to investigate urgently and to prosecute … those who have perpetrated serious crimes”.
Think this is strong language? Let us examine previous resolutions on Cambodia, looking at the issue of impunity.
Resolutions adopted in the 1990s expressed “grave concern” about “numerous violations” and urged the government to address impunity “as a matter of critical and urgent priority” (1997); stressed that “addressing the continuing problem of impunity [remained] a matter of critical and urgent priority” (1998); or “strongly appealed” to the government to “take all necessary measures” to bring perpetrators to account (1999).
Resolutions adopted from 2000-2003 expressed “serious concern” about the prevalence of impunity and called upon the government to “take further measures, as a matter of critical priority” – the word “urgent” disappeared. They welcomed “investigations into some cases of politically motivated violence” (2000) and recognised the government’s “commitment and efforts” (2002).
The 2004-2005 resolutions welcomed Cambodia’s progress “in improving its human rights situation” and urged the government to “address as a matter of priority, inter alia, the climate of impunity” – the word “critical” disappeared.
Then, 2008-2009 HRC resolutions expressed the Council’s “concern about some areas of human rights practices” and urged Cambodia to “continue to address [. . .] the problem of impunity” – what was before a “climate” of impunity merely became a “problem”.
Finally, 2010 and 2011 resolutions urged the government to investigate and prosecute “all those who have perpetrated serious crimes”. The word “impunity” disappeared altogether.
The resolutions were of a merely “technical assistance” character and contained no condemnatory language.
The weak, de-politicised 2013 resolution was the obvious next step.
In fact, by failing to condemn ongoing impunity and abuse of power in the run-up to last year’s election, and adopting weaker and weaker resolutions, the international community allowed the continuation of a system in which, whenever challenged, the Prime Minister reacts by using the only language he knows: brute force.
What we witnessed in the last decade was merely the illusion of progress. The relative decline in political violence was due to fear, not consolidation of the rule of law.
Up to 2003-2004, the most serious human rights violations perpetrated in Cambodia were related to political struggles – ie, struggles over control of the state apparatus and the spoil system and patronage possibilities that come with it.
After that date, once CPP hegemony had been firmly established, most human rights abuses were committed in relation to economic struggles, as loyalties had to be bought and cronies had to be fed.
But as CPP rule is being challenged, the regime is proving that it still regards violence as a legitimate political strategy. They feel authorised to use the army to shoot at protesters, ban all public gatherings and detain citizens incommunicado.
And they do so in part because they know there will be no international outcry – only, possibly, more “technical assistance”.
Cambodia’s donors – who are the main sponsors of UN resolutions on the country – should put their response in line with the political reality, and that response should not be limited to technical assistance.
It should involve a full range of human rights tools: monitoring, reporting and condemnatory stances. This can start today with the UPR.
What Cambodia needs is strong institutions, not strong men. Rule of law will not come as a by-product of technical assistance.
As long as donors will not demand real reform in exchange for aid, there will be no progress.
Human rights are inescapably political. They are about imposing limits on the exercise of power.
In Cambodia, greater respect for human rights, legal safeguards and checks and balances will mean undermining the regime and its cronies, whose rule is based on injustice, violence and impunity.
Technical assistance will be no substitute for political will.
United Nations at the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)