Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen delivering a speech during an event attended by garment workers in Kampong Chhnang province. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen delivering a speech during an event attended by garment workers in Kampong Chhnang province. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

A UN-appointed three-member panel has just released a report recommending that Myanmar generals identified by a year-long fact-finding mission into the Rohingya tragedy be referred to the United Nations Security Council. It is highly anticipated that the panel will further recommend criminal prosecution against those generals and that they be tried before the International Criminal Court for “genocidal intent.”

A range of crimes have been documented, including mass killings, gang rapes of women and young girls, and the wholesale destruction of villages by the military.

However, the question that must be asked is, why has the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) not taken a similar position in the case of Cambodia? Do the crimes committed by the Myanmar army within a relatively short period deserve to be treated any differently from the crimes committed by Cambodia’s armed forces stretching back as far as 1997?

After all, both the Myanmar and Cambodian regimes have been ruling under the pretext of so-called democracy, while both have little respect for human rights or genuine democracy. Both countries are ruled by military officials. Both have armies committing crimes documented by rights groups and the UNHRC.

One common crime committed by the two regimes is worth exploring further: the burning of villages. In Cambodia, forced eviction of villagers and the destruction of entire villages have been a regular pattern on a large scale, resulting in thousands being displaced. While in Myanmar the motive for such crimes is racial, in Cambodia, forced eviction is justified by the claim of economic development.

In that regard, when one looks at the severity of the crimes committed, the perpetrators in Cambodia undertook a calculated and planned assessment of the potential economic benefit, whereas the torching of villages in Myanmar focused on areas occupied by Rohingya Muslims.

In both countries, people’s lives have been affected through sheer injustice and displacement, resulting in fear for generations to come. Cambodian victims who have demanded justice have been met with arbitrary arrest and detention.

Human-rights violations and the culture of impunity have been secured by Cambodia’s non-independent judiciary, which has seen the UN pass a number of resolutions. But those efforts were nullified in November 2017 when the government applied to have the main opposition banned and dissolved.

In 2003, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights passed Resolution 2003/79, which “urges the government of Cambodia to strengthen its efforts to tackle the problems related to land … and notes with concern the remaining problems of land grabbing, forced evictions and further displacement.”

Yet the UN and the international community took no concrete actions to ensure compliance. The same crimes are still being committed in 2018 by the current regime.

Resolution after resolution resulted in blatant attacks by Cambodia’s ruling party. Only cosmetic and superficial reforms took place intended to please the UNHRC. But structurally there was no compliance. Nonetheless all the UN could express was “We urge” or “We are concerned.”

In fact the more the UN has urged and resolved and expressed concern for the last 25 years, the more destructive the regime has been. A clear example is the dissolution of the entire major political opposition, not to mention the arrest of political and human-rights activists.

Added to the list are the extraordinary efforts made by the UNHRC toward an independent judiciary system. Yet the ruling party continues to use its so-called judicial power to detain or prosecute innocent victims based on falsified charges of “defaming the government.”

These actions are not only in high contempt of the UN’s resolutions and the international community’s efforts at building Cambodia after the Paris Peace Accords of 1991, but they raise serious questions relating to the effectiveness of the UNHRC when dealing with a longtime authoritarian regime like Cambodia’s.

The UNHRC’s long-established approach to Cambodia raises further questions as to the objective assessment of past resolutions and current statements by the Council. This is relevant, as two weeks ago after the national election in July – labeled by the US and others as “flawed,”  “fake” or “a shame” – the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a briefing on August 17:

“We are concerned about the human-rights environment around the elections that were recently held in Cambodia without the dissolved main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).”

It is difficult to reconcile with this statement in light of the aftermath of the ruling party’s application last November applied to have the Supreme Court ban and dissolve the official opposition. More important are the gross violations of human rights and attacks on fundamental institutions such as the media and civil society, of which the UNHRC was supposed to be the guardian and protector. For those 3 million voters whose party was banned, the only remedy the Office of the High Commissioner could come up with was: “We are concerned.”

In light of the severity of the situation, the latest response by the UN does not reflect the magnitude of the suffering instigated by the current regime. In fact it would have been highly appropriate for the Office of the High Commissioner to say: “We condemn.”

To make it worse, as the election has been widely condemned, on  August 17, the Office said: “We call on the government to create an environment for open and inclusive political debate that allows all voices in Cambodia to be heard.”

It is very insensitive on the part of the UN to call the current regime a “government” when the election has been widely condemned as flawed. More significant, this statement goes against the joint statement of 45 nations delivered before the UNHRC on March 21, which was also recalled in a motion passed by the Australian Federal Parliament in June. The joint statement stated that a Cambodian national election that excluded the opposition would be neither fair nor legitimate.

To remove the perception that there is a double standard within the UNHRC in the cases of Cambodia and Myanmar, a review must be undertaken as to whether the Council has any functional relevance or is merely legitimizing dictatorship in Cambodia. The destruction of the democratic system, the abuse of the judicial system and continued violations of human rights by the ruling regime spiraling out of control are indicative of a failed mission, unless coercive actions are taken against the Hun Sen regime.

In terms of naming and shaming the armed forces, the two countries have a lot in common, but there is one exception: In the case of Cambodia, the US government was swift in taking action. As the regime failed to  address the international community’s demands, one of Hun Sen’s bodyguards who is also serving in the armed forces was sanctioned by the US. Additionally, while Myanmar has five military commanders whose names have been published by rights groups in an attempt to shame them, Cambodia has 12.

While it is clear that the crimes committed by both countries deserve equal actions by the UN and the international community, in Myanmar, the offenses committed against the Rohingya Muslims are accompanied by graphic images of human suffering, while in Cambodia the crimes have been building up over a prolonged period of more than 20 years. But the effects will be generational for both nations.

For Cambodia, the situation is worse because the country was supposed to be free from a genocidal regime, yet crimes now are being committed under the gaze of the UN-sponsored Khmer Rouge Tribunal and the UNHRC. For these reasons, the UN can and should make recommendations similar to those on Myanmar, for the secretary general to appoint a fact-finding mission to investigate the criminal conduct instigated by the Cambodian regime over the last 20 years.

Sawathey Ek

Sawathey Ek is a lawyer based in Sydney.

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