H uman rights in Cambodia - too many rights and freedoms, or too little respect for the rules? Hassan AbuKasem debates
I wish to focus my attention on the controversy surrounding the interpretation of the terms "rights and freedoms
(or liberty)" by local Cambodian intelligentsia, and by Cambodian standards. I hope this piece will invite
further debate on the subject in a constructive and civilized manner. At the same time I do not pretend to be an
expert on human rights and freedoms. I will only share my opinion and experiences with local human rights activists
as I observe how the Cambodians interpret and exercise their rights and freedoms.
In a country of full-grown democracy, citizens exercise their rights and freedoms, as defined and protected under
the constitution, to express their views against government policies without fear of reprisal by their elected
leaders. This is because the citizens believe in the concept that people were born free and "endowed with
certain inalienable rights."
But the words "rights and freedoms" seem to have taken on new and vague - and often twisted - meanings
at every turn, from one generation or interest group to another, depending on who we are talking to.
When the word "right" for humans is rendered an unreasonably vague definition and misunderstood, the
freedom of expressing oneself may be exercised improperly, infringing on others' rights. For example, if one expresses
his anger by verbally insulting a revered figure in public, claiming that this is his guaranteed right to do so,
he is wrong unless he is insane. This kind of behavior, which disturbs the peace at a particular place, is not
even permitted in the "free and democratic" America.
How should rights and freedoms be exercised to avoid misunderstandings, which may lead to animosities and distrust
between the authorities and the common people or between ordinary citizens? Who should have more or less rights
and freedoms? The Cambodians, especially those in the print media, must understand the fundamental meanings of
the two words, and the purpose of actions between people, if they seek to live in peace with one another.
"Right," based on the second definition given in Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, means "the
power or privilege to which one is justly entitled." In my view, one may apply it to promote his interests
as a rightful citizen and the interests of the nation as a whole in a legitimate, moral and ethical manner, whether
such right is granted by God or by someone of authority.
A right is generally used by someone for the purpose of demanding something he or she ought to have but does not
get. The exercise of a person's right, "to which they are entitled," should be in line with the moral
code of conduct and the established legal standard, so a person would not offend other individuals who have the
same and equal rights. Right is a two-way street.
In order to ensure public order and safety and the well-being of the society at large, a law governing individual
rights must be in place; it must be defined and interpreted unambiguously - and enforced impartially - to prevent
one individual or group from having more rights than another.
More obvious, citizens of a civilized country usually refer their disputes on such matters as individual rights
to the constitution, or the law of the land, to guarantee the citizens fair and equal treatment before the law.
If an individual or a group is allowed to possess greater rights, those with lesser rights may inevitably be victimized.
To stretch the meaning of "God-given" rights to the limit, the rights activists in developed countries
also work to protect and defend the rights of animals, trees, rivers, the air, etc. for they believe all these
have lives; thus, their rights ought to be protected.
However, when each of us asks unceasingly for more and more rights for ourselves, we will find ourselves having
redundant rights, and we may not be able to use all of them in the appropriate way. As a result, these rights may
prove meaningless to us and, in turn, be conducive to abuses of other individuals' rights. Here in Cambodia, as
I have heard and seen, some who have acquired their rights from UNTAC's school of thought simply use them as a
tool to irritate or cause psychological harm to other people. Malicious acerbity, acrimonious gossip, arbitrary
charges, preposterous statements, derisive stories/ drawings, etc., not to mention poor vocabulary, sentence structure,
grammar and misspellings, appear in most local, privately-funded Khmer-language newspapers everyday. They contain
more personal opinions and commentaries than real news stories, and are based largely on rumors, not research or
analysis. Very few people in present-day Cambodia, regardless of their status, commit themselves to the rule of
law or standard of decency; some just hold that "the end justifies the means."
In other instances, government or popular actions inappropriately taken against a particular institution, business
or individual appear to be encouraged by high-ranking officials or defended by the powerful, who swore to protect
the lives and property of the powerless. A group of armed police officers, who are supposed to cooperate with the
court to enforce the law, surrounded a prosecutor's house and threatened the King-appointed chief law enforcement
officer because he might have prosecuted one of their relatives. A crowd of angry demonstrators ransacked the office
of a local Cambodian newspaper, and their action was applauded at the highest level of government. A senior government
official who deplored the incident placed himself (squarely) on a collision course with his superior. All this
leads people to assume that when a person feels unhappy with someone's action, he can take the law into his own
hands in the name of exercising his right and freedom.
Cambodians seem to experience a sense of uncertainty as to how they should exercise their individual "rights
and freedoms" in the strictest sense, in what context and circumstance, and whether their rights and freedoms
should supersede the rule of law. Some express themselves in the form of "liberty and license," rather
than "right and freedom," which often leads to a violation of rules or standard practice.
The historic UN mission in Cambodia brought about a false sense of equal rights and freedoms, fair legal standards,
social and economic parity and political security for the people it was supposed to save.
The legal system in this country - from the administration of civil and criminal justice to the application of
electoral law - is based primarily on UNTAC's pre-set formulae and Western concepts, which may or may not be practicable
in Cambodian society. Ill-defined UNTAC and Western prescriptions on how to run Cambodia, coupled with the indistinct
language of the Constitution, leave room for free or contradictory interpretation and throw ordinary Cambodians
into a state of confusion and soul-searching.
When MP Sam Rainsy was expelled from the National Assembly, the government said its decision for the expulsion
was based on UNTAC's or the UN's legal bible, not the Constitution. Rainsy's supporters claimed the government
had no right to expel an MP unless people in his district petitioned to have him removed for flagrant violation
of law. The government insisted that it had the right to expel an MP - by removing him from the party membership
- because he was elected through the party.
Legal experts, who helped draft the electoral law, voiced their opposition to the government's action for an application
of the law that they themselves wanted Cambodians to use. In Rainsy's case the government's right is guaranteed
and protected, but the MP's is not.
People around the globe regardless of age, sex, national origin, social status and religious belief yearn for basic
rights and freedoms, and some even trade their lives if they are deprived of their rights and freedoms.
For humans, rights and freedoms are valuable only when they are exercised scrupulously, correctly and responsibly.
If each citizen is not ready to undertake his duty and responsibility in utilizing basic rights and freedoms towards
his fellow citizens, I think limited rights and freedoms (i.e. within the constraint of defined rules of law) would
be safer than a free rein. This is in no way to suggest that government should be granted excessive rights and
In Cambodia today the local intelligentsia, through newspapers, is pressing the government to adopt and embrace
Western concepts and practices on human right and freedoms in virtually every detail of the words. They interpret
the words "Siddhi" (Right) and "Serei Phiap" (Freedom) liberally. The young and the old, the
ruling and the ruled, the parents and the children, according to this interpretation, have no more nor less rights
and freedoms. When this new mentality develops without bounds, the unique national trait found in Khmer culture,
such as humbleness, politeness, mutual respect, etc., will disappear in the long run. Cambodia will then the thrown
into atavism, marked with arrogance, uncivilized behavior, cynicism and anarchy.
Cambodia's citizens should be encouraged to respect and obey their leader. The elected in turn should be lenient
and cautious in responding to legitimate, constructive popular criticism and truthful comments, since they have
the power and tools to express their wills.
A good leader exercises his authority justly, and discharges his duties faithfully, so as not to violate the guaranteed
rights and freedoms of his people. At the same time, he does not shy away from the truth.
- Hassan Abukasem, a native of Cambodia, is executive director of Cambodia Development International, a non-profit
organization based in Washington DC.