Five international organizations have joined together and come to Phnom Penh to form
a human rights watchdog body for the electoral period and to promote reconciliation
in the strife torn country.
The Human Rights Task Force on the Cambodian Elections consists of the Washington
based International Human Rights Law Group, the International Center for Ethnic Studies
(ICES) in Colombo, the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation, the Bangkok Union of Civil
Liberties (UCL) and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
The task force arose from recommendations made at the International Symposium on
Human Rights held in the capital last November and is currently being represented
in Phnom Penh by Jeevan Thiagarajah, an ICES election monitoring specialist, and
The organization, working in coalition with four of the local nascent human rights
groups, is already closely monitoring human rights and electoral issues and planning
to publish periodic reviews of the situation, the first of which went into circulation
on Mar. 17. Jeevan, who will later be joined by a six member international monitoring
team, said it was the first time that he would be on site for such a long time."To
be in a position to observe the entire electoral process is the best way to observe
an election," he said.
"The three main areas of operations are the on-site monitoring of human rights
issues during the electoral period, additional human rights orientation for local
NGOs and, with the team in Phnom Penh, assessing the human rights environment during
the election," Jeevan said.
He went on to say that the force was not monitoring in the strict sense of the word.
"That implies we can do something about a violation. But as observers we can
just write about it and hope that some action is taken. But we have no legal status
to enforce anything."
Beyond the immediate issue of the election, reconciliation and rehabilitation were
the major concerns of the task force, Jeevan said, adding that his organization would
assist other agencies interested in working in these areas.
"It's a big long road. There's an enormous amount of work to be done just getting
to grips with Cambodian sensitivities," he said. "So many people died that
the past haunts the survivors. But the cure for all the anger and hurt will have
to be undertaken in an inoffensive way."
Providing assistance for the victims of Cambodia's traumatic past is one such "inoffensive"
way and of the programs that the task force aims to implement. "The shared suffering
of a majority of people would help give them the strength to overcome their trauma,
to move forward," the organization said in a recent statement. To meet this
end, Jeevan proposed the establishment of "drop in centers" for people
to get together to discuss their problems and where medical advice and trauma counselling
would be available.
He dismissed the idea of prosecuting those responsible for mass murder as a means
to help Cambodians overcome their recent tragic experiences. "To try to use
judicial structures to appease that anger may only divide the people further,"
he said. In addition, he acknowledged that 'realpolitik' had already ruled out that
But as regards the crimes of the past, he advocated that they be scrupulously documented
as a deterrent to anyone contemplating the continuation of such practices.
The documentation of past crimes and the current monitoring and reporting should
also ensure that any further acts receive sufficient international condemnation to
encourage action against those responsible for 'crimes against humanity', Jeevan
Jeevan felt the situation at present in Cambodia required a "big bold statesman-like
initiative", though not necessarily from one person, aimed at promoting reconciliation.
The task force, together with the four local NGOs, aim to assist such an initiative
by getting eminent personalities like the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Sadruddin
Aga Khan to visit Cambodia. These emissaries of peace would help motivate the people
"towards working for reconciliation of the hearts and minds of all those who
have suffered in Cambodia." "There's no appeasement or reconciliation if
you go on the path 'you must punish'," Jeevan said.
With the prospect of the country slipping back into renewed warfare and with the
people becoming increasingly pessimistic, these program were seen as crucial in helping
reconciliation. "A preliminary team from India, Kuala Lumpur, New York and Bangkok
will be coming to look into these ideas. This is a grouping that has come together
under the initiative of the task force," he said.