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On the streets marching for justice

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Demonstrators from various faith groups attend a ‘Sit Out the Curfew’ protest along a street in Oakland, California, on June 3 against the death of George Floyd who died on May 25 in Minneapolis while in police custody. AFP

On the streets marching for justice

‘Where is Brad Adams? Where is the so-called Human Rights Watch? Where are you now? Why are you not saying anything?’

This is how Prime Minister Hun Sen began his June 1 attack on me and Human Rights Watch (HRW), the global human rights organisation where I’ve been Asia director for 18 years. Hun Sen suggested HRW had remained silent about the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died at the hands of the police in the US.

This kind of personal attack was nothing new. Hun Sen has frequently attacked me for the work of Human Rights Watch. Government officials have called me a Khmer Rouge supporter and a CIA agent – anything to deflect from the facts I and my colleagues present.

But I am pleased to answer Hun Sen’s questions. I am in California. Along with many of my colleagues, I have been marching with thousands of others in peaceful protests against police violence and in support of #BlackLivesMatter. It has been heartwarming and encouraging to see so many people in the US and around the world willing to protest injustice in the era of Covid-19. It has also been depressing to witness police abuse against protesters. My son and I were teargassed by the Oakland police at a demonstration.

“Where is Human Rights Watch?” We’ve been speaking at the top of our lungs, calling for justice and accountability, as we do around the world. Here’s a small sample: a news release on the protests and the need to address structural racism; one on deployments of immigration and border patrol officers; and a video on the George Floyd killing and protests. We have strongly criticised the Trump administration for its reckless use of helicopters to break up protests in Washington, DC. Last week, we released a major report on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre in Oklahoma, which calls for reparations for survivors and their descendants and the broader black community.

If Hun Sen really believes, as he said on June 1, that we operate on “double standards”, he and the government officials who echo his rhetoric should simply visit our website to read about our work on rights issues in the US. Among other things, they would see that we have been among the loudest voices calling for the closure of the horrific detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. We have done a massive amount of work opposing US immigration policy, including strongly criticising the Trump administration’s separation of children from their parents. Most recently, we filed a complaint for knowingly sending asylum seekers from Latin America to await their asylum hearing in dangerous cities in Mexico where they are routinely targeted by criminal organisations.

Many Cambodians have appreciated our efforts to stop the US policy of deporting residents of Cambodian nationality for minor crimes. Many of them grew up in the US, do not speak Khmer, and have been cruelly separated from spouses, parents and children. We appreciate that the Cambodian government has welcomed them back and would be happy to work with it to reverse this policy.

To make clear our commitment to the universal nature of human rights and to show that we don’t play favourites, we have more people working on the human rights situation in the US than in any other country, even though many countries have far fewer freedoms and far more serious and routine rights violations.

I have been protesting racial and other injustice in the US since I was a university student. Before moving to Cambodia, I spent five years as a legal aid lawyer defending the right to housing and food for minority and poor communities. While former US President Ronald Reagan was supporting the Khmer Rouge in the 1980s, I participated in many protests against US foreign policy, including US support for the Contra rebels against the Nicaraguan government. I marched against the US invasions of Iraq in 1991 and 2003. I’ve been gassed, clubbed and beaten at various times alongside others who peacefully opposed immoral or illegal policies.

During the five years I worked in Cambodia (1993-98) I watched in admiration as Cambodian human rights activists, journalists, trade union members, and citizens took huge risks to stand up for their rights and those of others.

One of the people I most admired when I lived in Cambodia was Chim Chan Sastra. Sastra spent his childhood in a Thai refugee camp. When he finally returned to Cambodia, he worked with me at the UN human rights office in Phnom Penh. Sastra was a smart, committed idealist. But by 1995 he was so fed up with the then-coalition government that he decided to leave, hoping he could make a bigger difference by joining the UN mission deployed after the genocide in Rwanda. In a cruel irony, a young man who had survived the genocide in Cambodia was murdered in 1997 by Hutu genocidaires half a world away, leaving behind a wife and three children.

I still have a photo of a smiling Sastra that I keep in my desk drawer. It is people like Sastra who have helped the world make halting progress over centuries. It is the willingness, displayed by protesters all over the world right now, to risk their own safety and wellbeing who force change on leaders and political systems. It is through this kind of non-violent struggle that genuine democracies are created and sustained.

Brad Adams is Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

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