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Human Rights Groups Set Up Election Watchdog

Human Rights Groups Set Up Election Watchdog

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

Kenneth Cain.

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

option.

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

said.

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.

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