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Joining Forces with the Task Force

Joining Forces with the Task Force

A number of Asian non- governmental organizations (NGOs) visited Phnom Penh recently

as part of a Human Rights Task Force on the Cambodian Elections programme. The aim

is to facilitate links between regional human rights and development groups and the

Cambodian human rights movement.

"The notion was to talk first to the various Cambodian groups and to try and

find out what their priorities were in human rights terms, as distinct from UNTAC

priorities. And based on that, we got some themes around which we hope to sustain

interaction," President of the International Center For Law in Development,

Clarence J. Dias said.

He described his organization as a network of third world lawyers who are concerned

about the environmental and human impact of development. He went on to say that the

Center would be combining efforts with the other visiting NGOs. They included the

Asian Cultural Forum on Development, the Asian Resource Center for Human Rights Education

and the Center For Independence of Judges and Lawyers. The former Chief Justice of

India, P.N. Bhagwati, who was present in Phnom Penh, chairs the latter organisation.

"Each one of us is linked to a number of other networks," Dias said, adding

they would seek assistance from all those with relevant experience.

Given Cambodia's traumatic past, all the groups saw developing national reconciliation

as a priority. "At a later state there are two different notions we would like

to develop on this reconciliation notion. One is people to people diplomacy. For

example, when India and Pakistan were about to go to war with each other, we brought

environmental groups from India and Pakistan together and human rights groups together

in Pakistan. So we were able to keep a channel of communication going despite what

the governments were doing," Dias said.

" The other is to bring in world moral leaders to express their concerns and

their support for the Cambodian people's aspirations for peace and reconciliation.

And then using their physical presence and their moral stature to see if some dents

could be made on the political roadblocks."

Another area where the group thought they could be of assistance, was in rebuilding

a legal infrastructure to promote both human rights development and democracy.

With Justice Bhagwati as a role model and drawing on the support of supreme court

justices throughout the region they would try and stimulate debate on the implementation

and promotion of human rights.

"An important aspect is building up the self esteem of people [in the judicial

system] who are demoralized because of the way they have been converted into 'yes

men' ," he said, adding "that's the kind of approach we would be taking

rather than conventional judicial training. But if formal training is needed, that's

where our connections come in as Justice Bhagwati is the chairman of the Center for

the Independence of Judges and Lawyers."

The group is also interested in assisting legal education. "We have been working

for several years to create a kind of alternative view of the practice of law. Not

one that motivates you to becoming the best lawyer that money can buy and then to

be bought by the highest bidder."

Similarly, informal dispute settlement was another alternative area they thought

merited attention.

"There's a whole bunch of disputes that you don't want to bring into the legal

system. Yes, the village headman. But there's extensions of that in the modern world

like housing cooperatives and peasant cooperatives settling things themselves, "

Dias said. "It's not only the modern romanticized anthropological glorification

of the past," he added.

A balanced framework for the resolution of civil and commercial disputes was also

seen as vital, especially for a developing country.

"So many countries in Asia have sold out on this, so that dispute settlement

mechanisms are primarily for the protection of the foreign investors and the big

corporations. Commercial disputes must be resolved with a careful look at protecting

national interests. You can invite foreign investment but that does not mean that

you have to give away your labor welfare legislation."

Dias said the various NGOs were hoping to try and arrange visits abroad for representatives

of the nascent Cambodian human rights NGOs to let them see how different NGOs operated

in Bangladesh and India.

In Bangladesh, they intended to introduce the visiting delegates to NGOs which started

out concerned with development issues and then were drawn into the area of human

rights because of the number of violations taking place in the name of "so called

development".

Dias also spoke of a "hidden agenda'" in trying to elicit Cambodian support

or solidarity for the organisation in Bangladesh dealing with ethnic injustice .

He felt, in reference to the Vietnamese question, that this sort of experience might

have "a ripple on effect about the scene at home."

Justice Bhagwati spoke of a proposed visit to a "holistic development project"

in India. This was organized by Aware, another NGO which the justice chairs.

"Without any political backing Aware went in and helped 2,000 villages organize

themselves to negotiate with the government to be given additional land so as to

become viable economic entities," Bhagwati said.

The villages set up their own health centers, paralegals, handicrafts industries

and computerized systems to assist their agricultural endevors.

"It was community mobilization and development to become self-reliant units,"

Bhagwati said. "The Cambodians have been subjected to repeated perverse forms

of community mobilization therefore it would be interesting for them to take a look

at this," he added.

Dias said the various groups gathered under the auspices of the Task Force were also

keen to get the local NGOs involved in a forthcoming conference in Vietnam. The conference

intends to discuss and assess the social, environmental and moral impact of Vietnam's

changing economic situation.

"The dialogue will be a critique of development. The starting premises are very

different but it will help the human rights groups understand what drives the Vietnamese

to come to Cambodia for jobs," he said.

Dias acknowledged that the Vietnamese problem was a factor behind another idea the

NGOs had recently discussed with their Cambodian counterparts.

"One of the things we talked about was trying to have a serious interaction

on the protection and promotion of human rights under especially difficult circumstances.

Not just here but in places like Kashmir and Punjab."

Dias dismissed the suggestion that they were setting themselves a vastly, if not

overly, ambitious task.

"All we are talking about is sharing experiences. Because of the isolationism

that was forced on the Khmers and because of the rupture of their own intellectual

tradition, there's an over-dependence, in terms of external contacts, on two main

sources. There are the overseas Khmers living primarily in France and, to a lesser

extent, in the U.S. And then the other external set of contacts is coming through

the U.N. system. What we are trying to do is to have a different set of contacts

through a kind of professional to professional, Asian solidarity approach. We are

not setting up offices and creating five year budgetary programmes over here."

Much, he admitted, depended on the attitude of the new Cambodian government.

"If the new government makes it impossible for us to have access to the NGOs

here and to do meaningful work, then we are not going to waste out time. We would

continue some kind of solidarity effort with the people. But that's a whole different

situation."

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