FOREIGN donors have been accused of failing to hold the government to account by rights groups who have called on the international community to ensure aid payments support reforms and do not go towards strengthening a corrupt system of government. In the wake of opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua's conviction on defamation charges Tuesday, rights groups said donors were taking no action in the face of an escalating crackdown on government critics.
Sara Colm, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, called the Mu Sochua verdict a "slap in the face" for international donors and the Cambodian people.
"Donors who've been supporting the rule of law and judicial reform programmes in Cambodia need to take a long hard look at the actual lack of progress and good will on the part of the government," she said. "It's really a sham to continue funding judicial reform, rule of law [and] democracy-building programmes."
Others said that if foreign governments are going to provide yearly aid to Cambodia, conditions should be set. "This is taxpayers' money from different countries, and with the financial crisis it's even more important that countries are held accountable," said Naly Pilorge, director of the rights group Licadho.
A report released by the UK-based corruption watchdog Global Witness in February said that the donor community appeared "ill-prepared or reluctant" to hold the Cambodian government to international good governance standards despite pledging nearly US$4 billion in aid since 2002."The lack of public response from donors is another example of a failure on the part of the international community to confront this culture of impunity," said Amy Barry, a Global Witness spokesperson. "Donors must use the influence and leverage they have to promote good governance and hold the Cambodian government to account. Freedom of expression is a crucial element of this."
During a press conference at Sam Rainsy Party headquarters after her court hearing, Mu Sochua called on international donors to ensure foreign aid payments were not poured into a corrupt system. "We call on the international community not just to take note, but to take action," she said.
"We cannot let aid come into Cambodia and go into this system, which provides no justice for the poor."
A spokesman for the US Embassy said the country would continue to "monitor closely cases of defamation and disinformation" to see that proper judicial processes are followed. "The Cambodian constitution provides for free speech, and we hope that the Royal Government will seriously consider the effect that decisions on defamation have on this guaranteed right," the spokesman said.
British Ambassador Andrew Mace declined to comment on the Mu Sochua case Wednesday, but said that representatives of EU governments would be meeting with the government on Friday to discuss the recent crackdown. Officials from the French and German embassies in Phnom Penh could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Mu Sochua, who was ordered to pay 16.5 million riels (US$3,937) in fines and compensation for defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen, is the fourth government critic to have been convicted on defamation or disinformation charges since June. "These recent convictions and sentences seem inconsistent with [international] standards," the Phnom Penh office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a statement Wednesday. "Their cumulative effect risks stifling public debate on important issues of public interest and reduces the space for the exercise of the most core of democratic values: freedom of expression."
Mu Sochua flew to the United States on Wednesday, after filing an appeal against the verdict. She has said she will refuse to pay the fine. "She has not fled the country. She flew to meet with American representatives to tell them about human rights, the judiciary, land disputes and corruption," SRP spokesman Yim Sovann said Wednesday. "There is nothing to flee."