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Human Rights in Cambodia: What It Means?

Human Rights in Cambodia: What It Means?

The end of the cold war and the withdrawal of major powers from conflicts around

the world have not always produced the peace dividends that were expected. Fighting

has often continued. In some countries, societies have been so devastated by years

of war and economic collapse that the state itself may be said to have "failed."

In this context, the United Nations has increasingly been called in to make peace

between former proxies of foreign governments. But in the process it has suddenly

found itself also faced with the even more difficult challenge of assisting in rebuilding

state and social structures, while containing nascent forces of ethnic hatred and

renewed authoritarianism.

Freed of cold war restraints, multilateral diplomacy has found the initial task of

securing cease-fire agreements between warring parties relatively easy. But once

extricated from their international contexts, local factions have found new reasons

to prevent reconciliation, forcing the U.N. deeper into its new and more intrusive

role of overseeing transition to popular government and even directly administering

failed states.

Many types of political solutions to local conflicts may be possible. Local realities

and the resources made available to the U.N. must always be taken into account. But

the U.N., given its fundamental commitment to human rights, must of course ensure

that its new "peacemaking" role is one that also promotes and protects

basic freedoms. While stability enforced by a new repressive state may be possible

in the short term, only stability emanating from a democratic polity will be viable

in the long term. Lasting peace in ravaged societies will, of necessity, entail guarantees

of human rights.

Ensuring respect for human rights may seem an additional burden, considering the

already ominous responsibilities of a peacekeeping operation, but it may also be

seen as a great opportunity, given the real vacuum in leadership and in ideas of

government in many countries as well as worldwide trends toward democratization.

The framers of the Paris peace accords, which formally ended more than two decades

of civil war and foreign intervention in Cambodia, included an unprecedented human

rights mandate for the United Nations. The U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia

(or UNTAC), established by the accords, has been charged with controlling five key

areas of administration to create a "neutral political environment" for

"free and fair elections." These elections, in turn, would lead to the

drafting and adoption of a new liberal democratic constitution.

Alongside this, UNTAC would monitor and report on violations of human rights abuses,

taking "corrective action" where necessary and conducting a broad program

of human rights education, spreading ideas about human rights in a country whose

recent history had become a symbol for the massive abuse of state and military power.

While UNTAC has a separate human rights component, the organization was structured

so that all parts of its operation would assist in the protection of human rights.

In particular, it was hoped that UNTAC's mandate to "control" five key

areas of administration, including defense and public security, would work to end

abuses by local authorities.

Education was envisaged as the cornerstone of UNTAC's human rights activities. Given

Cambodia's recent past it was seen as imperative that information about basic rights

and freedoms be widely disseminated to help support new democratic processes.

Over the past year, UNTAC has conducted hundreds of seminars and training sessions

for various groups such as university students, journalists, healthcare workers,

police, judicial officers, political party members and others. Hundreds more general

briefings on human rights, particularly those rights closely related to the elections,

have also been held for the general population. Television and radio programs have

been produced and broadcast and new human rights curricula for schools have been


There has been a tremendous demand for human rights education, reflecting perhaps

the deep desire of the Cambodian people for a radical break with the recent past.

The continuation of international support for education projects, particularly the

training of officials and others directly involved in human rights related areas,

will be critical in further strengthening Cambodia's new democracy.

The other major part of UNTAC's human rights activities has been the monitoring of

"existing administrative structures," investigating allegations of human

rights violations, and taking, where possible, appropriate redress measures.

As key aspects of the Cambodian peace plan did not proceed as envisaged, most notably

the demobilization of soldiers, access to all zones, and the difficulties faced in

exercising control over "existing administrative structures," the monitoring

of human rights violations committed by Cambodian authorites became more important.

The exercise of "control" in order to secure a neutral political environment

and end human rights abuses would have been a daunting task even if the peace process

had gone exactly as planned, given the time frame involved and the resources available

to UNTAC. With the refusal of the Party of Democratic Kampuchea to demobilize its

troops and continue to participate in the process (which led to all factions not

demobilizing) and related resistance to close UNTAC supervision of the State of Cambodia's

security apparatus, UNTAC through its control function was hard pressed to prevent

mounting political violence.

The unwillingness of Cambodian authorities to properly investigate, apprehend, and

prosecute people suspected of involvement in political violence compelled UNTAC to

undertake its own arrests and prosecutions. This unprecedented step by a U.N. peacekeeping

operation, taken late in 1992, did help to stem political violence. The prosecution

of arrested suspects remains problematic, given the absence of a fully independent

judiciary, but at least some message of accountability for violations was made.

An increasing preoccupation of UNTAC in the area of human rights has been the ethnic

killings which have taken place and which have thus far claimed over one hundred

lives. Attacks against ethnic Vietnamese civilians by units of the National Army

of Democratic Kampuchea have also been accompanied by racist rhetoric from several

parties inciting ethnic hatred.

While issues fueling ethnic rivalries can only be resolved over a period of time

and by local leaders, immediate measures, such as providing security to vulnerable

populations and public information campaigns to defuse tensions and reduce violence,

can be undertaken by the U.N.

In all of its human rights activities, UNTAC has found it necessary to work very

closely with the local non-governmental community.

The very nature of human rights work, which often involves confronting misuse of

power by state authorities, means that the U.N. can not simply rely upon cooperation

with governmental bodies. By encouraging the development of indigenous human rights

organizations as well as working to strengthen other aspects of civil society such

as a free press, UNTAC complemented traditional diplomacy with more popularly oriented


If the United Nations presence in Cambodia is to lead to genuinely democratic government

and long term stability, the social and governmental institutions vital for the protection

of basic human rights need to be developed. These include an independent judiciary,

a free press, viable state institutions capable of providing basic social services,

an educated professional class, and indigenous non-governmental organizations able

and willing to promote the interests of representative government. Elections alone

cannot guarantee political freedom and representative government. The rebuilding

of institutions is a vital area in which the international community must invest

for the next generations if multifaceted U.N. peacekeeping operations of this type

are to be successful.

Human rights in the context of countries such as Cambodia means first ensuring for

the people their most fundamental rights, such as right to life and security and

a basic standard of living. Promoting and protecting human rights in such a context

is thus initially a process of rebuilding good government and civil society, where

only arbitrary military authority formerly existed.

This is clearly a long term process but one which must start with the peacekeeping

operation itself. Maintaining peace is only possible in the long term with effective

state structures, law and order, and a degree of economic stability. The immediate

reform or rebuilding of governmental institutions, the enforcement of law and order

and emergency economic rehabilitation are key aspects of moving towards respect for

basic human rights in countries, similar to Cambodia, where the U.N. is increasingly

being asked to play a highly interventionist role.

Coupled with this broad human rights task, UNTAC has also been made responsible for

the holding of free and fair elections. This means that the basic civil and political

rights essential for this transition must also be in place, a difficult task in many

countries with little history of democratic processes.

Human rights in peacekeeping operations must be part of an integrated approach aimed

at reasserting non-repressive state control where no effective state institutions

exist, while at the same time strengthening the essential institutions of civil society.

All this must be supported by firm measures to rehabilitate the economy and improve

popular welfare.

If human rights are not seen as part of such an integrated approach, and if international

commitment and support to this process stops with the peacekeeping operation following

elections, massive international intervention through the U.N. in countries such

as Cambodia, will be unlikely to achieve its objective of establishing lasting and

democratic peace.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily

reflect those of the United Nations.


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