Every year on October 23 we rightly celebrate the Paris Peace Agreements, which brought an end to decades of conflict and violence in Cambodia, with a public holiday. This year marked 25 years since the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements, and it is fitting that we use this milestone anniversary to reflect more critically on the successes and failures in the implementation of the Paris settlement.
This requires honest reflection not just on the progress and development Cambodia has seen since it emerged from civil war in 1991, but also on the areas where all parties continue to fall short in fulfilling the Agreements’ vision for a peaceful and democratic Cambodia, founded on respect for human rights.
Unfortunately, as the upcoming commune and national elections draw closer, recent months have seen an escalating crackdown on civil society and a troubling restriction of democratic space in Cambodia: legislation that restricts and punishes the exercise of fundamental freedoms, such as the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations, the Trade Union Law, and the new Telecommunications Law, to name but a few; a court system that lacks technical capacity and in which basic procedures are not followed, where the legal harassment and detention of human rights defenders and opposition lawmakers raise serious concerns about the judiciary’s ability to act with independence; and continued impunity for those who threaten, and even physically attack, members of civil society. It should go without saying that violations such as these are not the hallmarks of a “peaceful” society.
When the participants at the Paris peace conference sat down to negotiate a framework for Cambodia’s future, they had many choices as to the path Cambodia could follow. Yet in the end the path they selected, and the path laid out in the final versions of the Paris Peace Agreements that were signed by the late King Father, the then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk, as president of the Supreme National Council on behalf of Cambodia, was clear, and is explicitly stated in the text of the agreements: “Cambodia will follow a system of liberal democracy, on the basis of pluralism […] with a requirement that electoral procedures provide a full and fair opportunity to organise and participate in the electoral process.”
In addition to binding future Cambodian governments to implement this vision through the Constitution, the Paris Peace Agreements tasked the other 18 states that signed the agreements, as well as the UN, with the ongoing responsibility to promote and monitor their implementation.
The stated goal of the Paris Peace Agreements was to ensure that the Cambodian people enjoy the right to “determine their own political future”. Yet the drafters were foresighted enough to recognise that free and fair elections do not take place in a vacuum, that a functioning democracy requires respect for human rights, in particular the freedom to exchange ideas and engage in political discussion, to meet together and express shared opinions, including through peaceful protest, and to take part in political life without fear. For this reason, in the same section that set out in detail the arrangements for the first free and fair elections to be held in Cambodia, the Paris Peace Agreements guaranteed that “freedoms of speech, assembly and movement will be fully respected”.
Therefore, if liberal democracy was one pillar of the Paris settlement, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms was another. Human rights were placed at the heart of the Paris Peace Agreements, with Cambodia’s Constitution inextricably tied to the international human rights law framework.
Respect for human rights was seen as the best protection against any return to the horrors the Cambodian people had endured over the preceding decades, with the Agreements recognising that “Cambodia’s tragic recent history requires special measures to assure protection of human rights.” These special measures included the appointment of a Special Rapporteur with responsibility for monitoring the human rights situation in Cambodia. The current Special Rapporteur, Rhona Smith, has just completed her third visit to Cambodia, during which she emphasised that “respect for human rights is an integral part of ensuring lasting peace”.
Indeed, human rights were not merely seen as a response to Cambodia’s past, but also as the best guarantee for a stable, prosperous and peaceful future. Peace is not merely the absence of war. The drafters of the Paris Peace Agreements saw respect for human rights as an essential condition for the creation of a “positive peace”, which would allow real democracy to flourish.
For this reason, the agreements contained provisions in which Cambodia committed that all future governments would “ensure respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cambodia” and “support the right of all Cambodian citizens to undertake activities that would promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms”. As such, while the civil war may have ended in 1993, the recent backslide in Cambodia’s human rights situation is, in itself, a continuing threat to peace.
With this troubling conclusion, I return to where I began. Implementation of the Paris Peace Agreements is far from complete: if the current crackdown continues – if fundamental freedoms continue to be restricted – then, as the Paris signatories recognised 25 years ago, it is simply not possible for elections to take place that can be considered free and fair. While Cambodia’s Constitution contains explicit guarantees for human rights, as required by the Paris Peace Agreements, these fundamental freedoms are assured more on paper than in practice.
The Cambodian government must fulfil its continuing obligations under the agreements – which mirror those in the Cambodian Constitution and international human rights law – to ensure respect for human rights in Cambodia, and protection for those who defend and promote those rights.
The other 18 states that signed the Paris Peace Agreements must also live up to the binding commitments they made to promote human rights in Cambodia and take action in case of rights violations. Whether through existing international mechanisms, including those special procedures established for Cambodia in the agreements, or through their everyday bilateral diplomatic and economic relations, the international community, not forgetting international civil society, has a crucial role to play in raising awareness and bringing pressure to bear, to ensure Cambodia complies with its obligations to promote and protect human rights and democracy.
While we are marking the passing of a quarter of a century since the Paris Peace Agreements were drafted, I believe they remain as relevant as ever, and the vision they contain just as inspiring. The challenge and responsibility of implementing the Paris Peace Agreements did not end with the successful maintenance of a ceasefire, nor with the adoption of Cambodia’s Constitution, nor even with the holding of Cambodia’s first full and fair elections and the departure of the UN transitional authority.
Similarly, the obligations of the signatories to the agreements – of Cambodia and of the other states that committed to “promote and encourage respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cambodia” – did not end in 1993. If that vision is to become reality, and if the next 25 years of implementation of the Paris Peace Agreements are to be marked by a greater respect for human rights and democracy than the first, there is an urgent need for renewed commitment, action, and political courage from all parties.
Chak Sopheap is the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and a peace studies graduate from the International University of Japan.