Responsibility to Protect: an opportunity for Cambodia

Guerrilla soldiers carry mortar shells into Phnom Penh shortly after the city was taken over by the Khmer Rouge in 1975.
Guerrilla soldiers carry mortar shells into Phnom Penh shortly after the city was taken over by the Khmer Rouge in 1975. AFP

Responsibility to Protect: an opportunity for Cambodia

Cambodia could be at the centre of efforts by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in promoting human protection norms by taking the lead in implementing Responsibly to Protect (R2P), which was adopted by the United Nations in 2005.

Following the end of the Cold War, the world witnessed the demise of ideological conflicts and the birth of internal conflicts.

From the latter part of the 20th century until now, humanitarian crises continue to shock the consciousness of the international community.

The genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo created strong impetus for the international community to find a new consensus on how to deal with problems of genocide and mass atrocities. In 2001, a Canadian-sponsored International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) argued that the international community had a responsibility to protect populations from such grave crimes, witnessed in Rwanda, Bosnia and elsewhere.

In a nutshell, R2P emphasises that sovereignty entails both rights and responsibilities and that the latter incorporates the state’s responsibility to protect its population against mass atrocity crimes. As such, R2P is fundamentally about the protection of human life.

As a norm and principle, it is based on international laws and conventions, such as the Genocide Convention of 1948 and international humanitarian law.

A decade had passed now since the adoption of R2P by the UN, the norm has three pillars: first, the primary responsibility of individual sovereign states to protect their own population from genocide, crime against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing, and prevent incitement; second, the international community’s responsibility to encourage and assist states in fulfilling these responsibilities; and third, the international community’s responsibility to protect populations through peaceful means and, should that fail, to take collective actions in a timely and decisive manner.

Cambodia will command greater respect from the international community if its government takes it upon itself to showcase its achievements in atrocities prevention and its commitment to the principle of R2P.

Specifically, Cambodia should take the leading role in ASEAN in mainstreaming mass atrocities prevention as an integral part of its security agenda with emphasis on how individual states could effectively implement R2P to protect civilians.

Of all the countries in Southeast Asia, Cambodia is in a unique position to share with other ASEAN members and beyond the invaluable lessons based on its historical experience in dealing with atrocities in the past, including the creation of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the prosecution of Khmer Rouge leaders most responsible for committing genocide and crimes against humanity.

Cambodia should also be at the forefront of exploring ways to implement R2P in the context of ASEAN, such as practical ways to address humanitarian situations in the region, including human trafficking and the 1.5 million stateless refugees in the Rakhine state in Myanmar.

Looking ahead, Cambodia could also undertake concrete actions to demonstrate its strong commitment to R2P both at domestic and regional levels.

On the domestic front, the royal government of Cambodia should heed the suggestion made by Prime Minister Hun Sen in his keynote address at the opening of the international conference on “R2P at 10: Progress, Challenges and Opportunities in Asia Pacific”, held in Phnom Penh in February to designate national focal point for R2P.

Cambodia would be the first country in ASEAN to signify to the UN its commitment to R2P and clearly demonstrate to the region and the rest of the international community the Cambodian government’s resolve in dealing with past atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and continuing efforts in preventing genocide and other atrocity crimes in the future.

In doing so, it would join a club of 50 states from every other part of the world that has already taken this step.

In addition, Cambodia can take the lead in promoting R2P norms and encourage other ASEAN members to demonstrate further their commitment to R2P by:

• Signing and ratifying treaties such as the Arms Treaty, Small Arms and Light Weapons Proliferation, banning weapons of mass destruction, use of cluster bombs, and the recruitment of child soldiers.

It should be noted that in October 2000, Cambodia became the first country in the region to become party to the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the International Criminal Court.

• Passing necessary domestic laws to complement the Rome Statute, which also punishes mass atrocity crimes, violence against women, recruitment of child soldiers, among others.

It is also noteworthy to recognise that in remembering past atrocities, Cambodia adopted a domestic law in 2013 against the denial of genocide and war crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge and has taken concrete steps in the area of preventing and violence against women, which is the key component of implementing R2P.

• Establishing national human rights commissions for ASEAN members who still do not have their own human rights body at home.

• Encouraging individual states to hold national dialogues involving various stakeholders on mass atrocity prevention, confronting past atrocities and addressing issues related to internal conflicts that are considered risk factors related to mass atrocity crimes.

• Developing home-grown knowledge systems that monitor risk factors for mass atrocity crimes and incorporate mass atrocity prevention as an integral part of national security and social economic development framework.
At the regional level, ASEAN should consider:

• Mainstreaming R2P in existing mechanisms of ASEAN, including the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) and the ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation (AIPR).

Specifically, set clear goals or plans of action in addressing existing R2P-related crisis situations (e.g. protection of minorities, protecting their rights, protection of non-citizens and refugees).

• Promoting regional dialogue on R2P and mass atrocity crime prevention.

• Strengthening the ASEAN mechanisms such as AICHR and ACWC in order to enhance their capacities and in fulfilling their protection mandates.

As the Terms of Reference of these mechanisms are under review, innovative ideas should be entertained to make ASEAN more responsive to protection issues specifically with regard to rights of minority and vulnerable groups, protection of women and children against violence, protection of refugees and internally displaced persons.

• Engaging academic institutions and think tanks in the region in policy-relevant research in order to benchmark progress in the implementation of ASEAN agreements and plans of action related to R2P and mass atrocities prevention.

This is important in the context of identifying certain gaps in the capacity of member states to deal with risk factors related to mass atrocity crimes and to also help donor states and the international community to identify areas for providing international assistance to enhance the capacity of states.

• Deepening ASEAN’s engagement with civil society groups in promoting human protection in the region, specifically in human rights protection, civilian protection in armed conflict areas, and protection of women and children against violence.

• Engaging in cross-regional dialogue, in the context of cooperation among developing countries, to promote exchange of ideas, knowledge and information, as well as best practices in peace building, conflict prevention, and peacekeeping.

During a public seminar on “Mainstreaming the Responsibility to Protect in Southeast Asia: Pathway to a Caring ASEAN Community” in Phnom Penh on August 12, Surin Pitsuwan, chairman of the High Level Advisory Panel on R2P in Southeast Asia and former ASEAN secretary-general, expressed high hopes that Cambodia would appoint a national focal point on R2P.

In so doing, he said “Cambodia could take a lead in ASEAN initiative to mainstream R2P in Southeast Asia.

” This is an exceptional opportunity that Cambodia should not fail to capture if the country wants to be at the centre of gravity in Southeast Asia in sharing knowledge and good practices based on its own historical experience and lessons learned to other ASEAN members and to the rest of the world on how to prevent mass atrocity and build effective institutions to ensure that states respect and protect people from genocide, war crime, ethnic cleansing, and crime against humanity.

Pou Sothirak is the executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.


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