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MY PHNOM PENH: Rupert Abbott: Human-rights lawyer

Rupert Abbott has worked at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, for the UN at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal and as the deputy Asia Pacific director
Rupert Abbott has worked at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, for the UN at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal and as the deputy Asia Pacific director

MY PHNOM PENH: Rupert Abbott: Human-rights lawyer

Rupert Abbott has worked at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, for the UN at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal and as the deputy Asia Pacific director at Amnesty International. He recently founded RightStart, a human rights consultancy hub. He spoke with Brent Crane this week about the Phnom Penh places that have shaped his work.

S-21

S-21

I first visited Phnom Penh in 2002. I was studying history at Oxford University, and spent a month in Cambodia over the summer break with three friends. I had read about Cambodia’s tragic recent history, and heard a little about it from my mother, who worked in the BBC newsroom in the late 1970s. But it was only when I visited S-21 – with the rows of victim photos – that the horrors of what happened really hit me. The memory has stuck with me ever since. It contributed to my decision to work in the human-rights field, to try to play a very small role to stop such history repeating itself.

Hotel Le Royal

Hotel Le Royal

On a lighter note, Hotel Le Royal has been a place to relax. The history of the place – all those who’ve stayed there – makes it special. The Friday happy hour in the Elephant Bar is a place to unwind after a busy week, and catch up with diplomats and journalists. I’ve had meetings with all sorts of interesting people there, including David Chandler, Elizabeth Becker, and my contemporary, Sebastian Strangio – perhaps Le Royal is part of the mirage! It’s a favourite venue for national days and receptions, which can be important opportunities to build connections with officials, diplomats and others, to lobby on human rights concerns. While the human rights situation in many other countries in the world is certainly “worse” than Cambodia, the international community still has a very important role to play when it comes to supporting Cambodia on the democratic path and encouraging respect for human rights.

Phnom Penh Municipal Court

Phnom Penh Municipal Court

I have spent many hours – days, in fact – here, monitoring trials of human rights defenders who have sacrificed an awful lot for their country. The most memorable has to be that of former Minister of Women’s Affairs and opposition politician Mu Sochua, who was prosecuted for defamation. She’s a good woman and I admire her courage and integrity. I was back at the Phnom Penh court recently, supporting Ou Virak, who is also facing a defamation suit. He is a good guy, moderate and principled, and it’s people like him who can help change politics from the polarized and personal to being about ideas and principles.

Kbal Thnal bridge

Kbal Thnal bridge

The night of September 15, 2013, at Kbal Thnal overpass is etched into my memory. Security forces used unnecessary force against an angry crowd trapped at a roadblock, with several people suffering gunshot injuries and one man – Mao Sok Chan – shot dead. I was working with Amnesty and was one of the first human-rights monitors to see his body. I confirmed the killing to diplomats who were trying to work out what was going on. At one point that night, I dove on the floor of a shop amid another volley of gunfire. That night showed how quickly things can change in Cambodia. It was a reminder that the authorities are prepared to resort to the most brutal force.

Cambodian Center for Human Rights

Cambodian Center for Human Rights

After finishing my legal studies and before training as a lawyer, I returned to Phnom Penh to volunteer at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR). The office is now in Boeung Trabek, but in 2006 it was in Tuol Kouk. Kem Sokha was CCHR president, and had recently been released from jail after the crackdown on civil society (that in some ways was similar to what’s happening now). I was blown away by the work they were doing – the public forums, held in the most remote villages – and spent a lot of time with the organisation’s then advocacy director, Ou Virak, who had recently led a long march to campaign for freedom of expression. In 2007, after Sokha returned to politics, Virak became president and invited me to help rebuild the organisation.  

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