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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Cambodia wins support for oil, not rights

After Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte's recent visit to Cambodia, he told the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong: As Cambodia "works to strengthen democracy, improve public health, and increase respect for human rights, Cambodia can count on our support."

While in Cambodia, Negroponte announced the U.S. initial contribution of $1.8 million to fund the Khmer Rouge tribunal. He viewed the decline in violence in Cambodia's four national elections since 1993 as a "very positive development."

A day after his speech, the Voice of America reported State Department spokesman Sean McCormack' remarks: "We believe that the court (KR tribunal) is now capable of meeting international standards of justice, and ... the court has the capacity to respond effectively and appropriately" to allegations of corruption.

Two days before Negroponte's Hong Kong speech, the United Nations Human Rights Council, which held its 9th session in Geneva, reviewed on Sept. 15 the "Mandate of Special Representative of the (United Nations) Secretary-General on Human Rights Situation in Cambodia." Special Representative Yash Ghai wasn't present, but his written statement was read by Sima Samar, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Sudan.

In my Sept. 17 column, "Human rights, development should be balanced," I wrote that U.N. Special Representative Ghai observed the "scant respect for the rule of law," shown by state authorities and those "well connected" with the regime, and that Cambodia's courts and the legal profession "have failed the people of Cambodia woefully." I noted Premier Sen's government wanted Ghai fired, and failing that, declined all cooperation with Ghai, and menaced to close down the human rights office in Cambodia.

In Ghai's statement, Ghai canceled his trip to Cambodia to review the human rights situation and to consult on the future of the mandate of the Special Representative in Cambodia.

The statement spoke of Ghai's warning in his last report, "there had been serious deficiencies in the general elections in July this year. Little progress had been made in other areas where human rights continued to be violated. Allegations of further irregularities in the management of the extraordinary chambers continued to undermine the good work of the prosecutors and judges."

Ghai's "reports, advice and recommendations over the past year" produced no "change for the better," and this "state of affairs might raise a question as to whether there was any point in the extension of the mandate" of the Special Representative.

Yet, Ghai urged the Council to extend the mandate, and "it would be very important" that his successor "should have the full support of the Council, the United Nations family and the international community," which in his statement Ghai said he could not claim to have received.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had not come to Ghai's defense, the statement charged. Thus, as read by Samar, Ghai "had tendered his resignation from the position of Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the situation of human rights in Cambodia."

On the same day, Sept. 17, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, called on the Human Rights Council to extend the mandate, and observed, "The systematic lack of protection of human rights in Cambodia is a consequence of impunity, the absence of the rule of law and the seriously stunted legal and judicial reform. The government -- through inaction -- continues to demonstrate its unwillingness to seriously address human rights."

Amnesty and HRW remind it was the 1991 Paris Peace Accords signed by the U.N. and 19 member states that recommended the Special Representative to protect and promote human rights. They say, "While Cambodia has experienced significant economic growth during the past 15 years, the government has rejected a rights-based approach to development. As stipulated in the Paris Peace Accords, economic development must go hand in hand with respect for human rights."

On the same page?
Can it be that the Cambodia described by Negoponte and the Cambodia described by Ghai and rights groups, are the same country? Opposition leader Sam Rainsy sees Ghai's departure as a loss to victims of human rights violations. Khieu Kanharith, the Cambodian Minister of Information, charges, "The accusation made by Mr. Yash Ghai is only aimed at creating animosity ... and this shows his despicable attitude and manner are unfit for the high role given to him by the UN."

I lamented the disconnect between governments preaching human rights and freedom and their actual support for authoritarian rules that suppress them. On Sept. 17, the VOA broadcast that Sen said he was "satisfied" with Ghai's resignation: "I have no need to curse him anymore."

Perhaps, here's something to reflect on: Are China, the U.S. and other countries drawn to supporting the Hun Sen government, which controls Cambodia's potential oil fields in the Gulf of Thailand and onshore deposits of minerals? Will oil bring wealth for the poor people, 35 percent of whom live on less than 50 cents a day, or a curse, if the 2007 95-page "Global Witness Cambodia's Family Trees," the Transparency International survey on global corruption, among others, are guides?

A. Gaffar Peang-Meth, Ph.D., is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. Write him at

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