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
"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
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