The article 'UN Human Rights Center gets new chief' in the last edition of the Post
compelled me to comment on some of Rita Reddy's points.
On 'The Climate of Violence in Cambodia' she demonstrates a horrible ignorance sadly
characteristic of many high-ranking UN officials. No one will deny that Cambodia
can be a dangerous country in which to live, but to compare it to war-torn Bosnia
is grossly inappropriate. I can only imagine that Rita Reddy spent the duration of
her Bosnian posting in the comfort of a highly secure UN luxury compound far removed
from the fighting.
Rita Reddy claims that her security people advise her not to travel after dark. This
is absurd. Everyone, Khmer and foreign alike, travels around Phnom Penh after 6 pm
without incident. Admittedly it is foolish to walk alone in unlit and lonely streets
in the small hours, but this goes for every city in the world, perhaps with the exception
of Singapore. I spent three years in a poor suburb of Manchester in the north of
England and by comparison Phnom Penh feels very safe. Phnom Penh can seem very violent
but the local population are far more vulnerable. (It is fair to say that foreigners
enjoy some, although certainly not complete, immunity from the violent climate).
Rita's most offensive statement, which I hope she will reconsider once she has been
here a little longer, was 'There has been a bloody history in Cambodia - maybe it
has become incorporated into their genes.' True, Cambodians have become accustomed
to the climate of violence over the last thirty years and it does not shock them
as it might a Westerner, but to suggest that the violence has evolved biologically
into a characteristic of the Khmer nation demonstrates appalling ignorance. I advise
Rita Reddy to befriend a simple Khmer family (not her maid's, guard's or driver's)
and discover the generosity and authenticity they are capable of.
On the issue of funding, it sickens many people to hear nonsense like: "We are
so crippled, our resources are so little." I hate to state the obvious, which
has become a cliché, but I when see the updated Landcruisers and the plush
villas, and when I hear the size of UN workers' salaries, expense accounts and benefits,
I find it hard to believe that the UN is "crippled."
Globally it is estimated that only 10% of the money donated to the UN reaches the
grassroots. The rest is frittered away by pen-pushing bureaucrats on champagne receptions,
first-class travel and executive suites. Do not complain to a normal Khmer family
that there is not enough money because they will not see it from your point of view.
On a different note, Rita Reddy's attitude to the Government's Human Rights Committee
was extremely positive and is to be applauded. She spoke of "assisting"
them to assist the government, and "create dialogue to bridge the gap between
the NGOs and the government." This is much needed and long overdue. In the past
the attitude of many NGOs has been confrontational and colonialist. For example,
a former UN official who I was unfortunate enough to meet once, told me that the
criteria by which she judged the success of her work was the degree of irritation
it caused the government. She said: "The more we piss them off the better. The
more we get threatened the better." This is hardly a constructive attitude,
and I am thrilled that Rita Reddy is more mature and intends to steer clear of the
confrontational and concentrate on dialogue.
Rita Reddy's assumption that there is no global human rights paragon is quite justified.
Unlike her predecessors who seemed intent on arrogantly imposing a faulty Western
conception of human rights on a country that was neither ready for nor receptive
to it, she seems to understand that these things take time. Priority should have
been given to ensuring agricultural self-sufficiency before political freedom. Before
the UN-sponsored elections in 1993, normal Cambodian people had never had political
rights and since they are inedible it did not overly bother them; the priority is
rice, not rights.
No country can be expected to immediately conform to a western standard of morality
[after] a thirty-year civil war. With increased prosperity and trust in national
institutions, it may be possible to shape the country according to the principles
of the UN. However the moral imperialists should be wary of accusations of hypocrisy;
the UN's principal member and contributor still retains the death penalty and life
is the ultimate human right.
James Whitwell, Phnom Penh