Human Rights Watch versus voters’ rights

[Written on 3 June 2012.]

If people in foreign lands didn’t know that Cambodia was about to have an election, those who understand NGO “human rights” propaganda could have found out by reading an article by Human Rights Watch Asia director Brad Adams in the International Herald Tribune (the international edition of the New York Times).

Not that the article mentioned the commune-sangkat elections. That is not the method of Adams or HRW. The last thing they would want is to call attention to such a democratic procedure in Cambodia. But, knowing that the elections will attract widespread interest, HRW obviously thought it might be able to divert attention, and possibly even discredit the elections, with a sufficiently scurrilous and hysterical attack on Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Therefore, Adams’ article, which consisted almost entirely of abuse that has been repeated many times before, and which would be just as (ir)relevant at any other time, was carefully timed to allow it to be reprinted in Cambodia just before the election. An English-language mini-newspaper even swallowed the bait.

Adams was the obvious candidate to write the diversion, because his willingness to do almost anything to vent his hatred of Hun Sen is legendary. My own first encounter with this occurred a decade ago, when Adams published in the Phnom Penh Post (13-26 September 2002) an article attacking Hun Sen, which Adams claimed was based on the Thai government’s “official record” of a May 1998 meeting between Hun Sen and the then prime minister of Thailand. As the reproduction in the Post made obvious, Adams’ “official record” was anything but that: it consisted of clumsily pasted together papers, written in bad English, not Thai, with no government logo, signature or authorisation of any kind. This was pointed out in a subsequent letter to the Post [see “A dubious document and KR trials” in the Archives of this page], but Adams never retracted nor attempted to justify his “official record”.

The attitude revealed in that incident – if the rest of the world doesn’t agree with Adams’ view of reality, then there is something wrong with the rest of the world – is evident in his latest attack. Adams begins by reproaching the world for the fact that Hun Sen is “[o]ften overlooked in discussions about the world’s most notorious autocrats”. Most rational people would conclude from that that most of the world doesn’t regard Hun Sen as a notorious autocrat. Not Adams.

Adams has what he considers a better argument: dictators who had been in power for a long time have recently been overthrown in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. Hun Sen has also been in power for a long time. Therefore … therefore what?

Adams must be getting frustrated at tripping over his own illogic, so he launches into wholesale abuse of Hun Sen based on a very jaundiced view of Cambodian history. For a start, what, in Adams’ view, happened in Cambodia between 1977 and the arrival of UNTAC? Nothing at all, to judge from his article. The Khmer Rouge period has to be mentioned so that Hun Sen can be called “a former Khmer Rouge commander”. Then there is a necessary leap 15 years into the future.

The leap is needed in order to avoid mentioning that Hun Sen risked his life to help overthrow the KR – a rather more impressive record of defence of human rights than the badly written, illogical and inaccurate scribblings of Brad Adams. Furthermore, the decade of the 1980s, which Adams skips over without a mention, was when the government of which Hun Sen was part, and which he headed from 1985, was leading the rebuilding of the country in extremely difficult conditions of an international boycott that resulted in nearly all UN assistance for Cambodia going to the KR and other opposition camps in Thailand. It is not excluded that Helsinki Watch (the previous name of HRW) may have issued a press release saying “tut-tut” about this, but I am not aware of it conducting any major campaign on behalf of the human rights of the Cambodian population in this instance.

Once he gets to the 1990s, Adams feels free to let the ammunition fly. Since the arrival of UNTAC, everything that has really gone wrong, plus everything that somebody has said has gone wrong or anything that Adams might imagine has gone wrong, is the fault of Hun Sen. This is typical: “… when the then largest-ever United Nations peacekeeping force entered Cambodia to implement the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, Hun Sen and his party mobilized the security forces to intimidate and attack opposition party members”.

How’s that? The CPP government led by Hun Sen was running the country. According to Adams, it wanted to attack opposition party members. Therefore, it waited to do so until “the then largest-ever United Nations peacekeeping force” entered the country? What are we supposed to conclude? That the CPP government couldn’t suppress its opponents if it wanted to until the UN peacekeeping force rounded up opposition party members and handed them over to Hun Sen to be intimidated and attacked?

Adams never tires of such nonsense. For example: “Hun Sen has proven … able to keep his domestic opponents and international critics off balance. His main tactic has been the threat and use of force.” It might be conceivable that domestic opponents could be intimidated. But “international critics”? Have the US or EU been afraid to raise their voices because of the fear of a Cambodian invasion? Has HRW? Has Brad Adams gone into hiding?

The point of all Adams’ blather is to discredit not only the current commune-sangkat elections but also past and future national elections. He says nothing about the UN-run 1993 elections, in which there were many serious challenges regarding particular incidents, because in those elections the CPP came second. Instead, he focuses on 1998, when the CPP came first and there were demonstrations in Phnom Penh against the results of the election, his implication being that “of course” the protesters were right. What Adams neglects to mention is that even the International Republican Institute (IRI) observers of that election, while critical of the prior political atmosphere, found nothing serious to object to in the conduct of the election or the counting of the ballots.

As for subsequent general and commune-sangkat elections, they have been closely observed and generally approved by both international and national observers. In the current election campaign, all 10 parties have been given 12 minutes of free radio and TV time every day to present their message. Similar free time was provided in previous elections. But Adams simply denies reality (again), saying: “The country goes through the trauma of manipulated elections every five years in which no one imagines that the vote will be free and fair …”

What “manipulated” really means here is that Cambodians have a habit of not voting in the way Adams and HRW think they should. And it is likely to get worse, from their standpoint. A Gallup poll last month found a 93 percent approval rating for Prime Minister Hun Sen. According to an IRI poll in December, 81% of respondents believed that the country was generally “moving in the right direction”. And 67% indicated that they would probably vote for the CPP in the commune-sangkat elections (compared with 58% who did so in the 2008 general election).

Maybe, instead of trying to misrepresent or belittle Cambodian voters’ decisions, HRW should respect their vote. That would be more appropriate behaviour for an organisation that has “human rights” in its name.

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