Human rights or campaign rhetoric?

[Published by the Cambodia Herald on 9 July 2013. Translated into Khmer and distributed by the government Press and Quick Reaction Unit.]

During an election campaign, political parties are of course not the only people or organisations that engage in what could be called campaigning. Individual citizens discuss issues and who to vote for with neighbours and family. Organisations that advocate particular issues have the right to say that this candidate or that party has a better (or worse) stance on their issue. Newspapers may urge their readers to vote for a particular party. All of this is a normal part of free speech and democratic elections.

People also have a democratic right to behave badly. By that, I don’t mean violating laws. I mean using free speech in a way that works against the goal of enabling voters to make an informed democratic choice. An example would be politicians who promise to do things that they don’t intend or wouldn’t be able to do. That sort of thing can’t be outlawed, but voters in most democracies develop a healthy scepticism regarding unrealistic promises by candidates; they know from their own daily experience what is and isn’t likely or possible.

Another way of behaving badly is to pretend you’re talking about something else when you’re really trying to support a particular party. Still another is to direct your free speech towards people who don’t have the knowledge or experience from which to judge whether or not what you say is accurate. Two examples of a combination of these two misbehaviours have appeared recently in US media. In both cases, election rhetoric in support of the opposition is portrayed as support for human rights and fairness in elections.

On 4 July, Associated Press distributed an article reporting that several members of Congress and “human rights activists” are “pushing for a cut” in US aid to Cambodia if they don’t approve of the outcome of Cambodia’s upcoming election. While the article says that both members of the House of Representatives and Senators are “pushing”, it gives the names only of two senators, Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham.

Rubio, a Republican from Florida, is known as “the crown prince of the Tea Party movement” – the ultraconservative gaggle of misfits that believes you will get along better with your neighbours if you can threaten them with a rapid-fire semi-automatic weapon. Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, favours “big government” in some things. The Wikipedia entry on him summarises: “The most important thing to Graham is to have a government that has a lot of power over the economy to be able to spend a lot of the country’s resources on involving the U.S. militarily in any issue around the globe that he believes should be different than it currently is.”

As for “human rights activists”, the AP doesn’t name any. All it mentions are officials of Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International. HRW has very little connection with real human rights. It is the result of the merger of two US Cold War fronts for the US State Department – one dedicated to discrediting the Soviet bloc and one whose job was to say an occasional “Tut, tut” to Washington’s Latin American dictators, in the hope of creating the illusion that the US government really cared about human rights.

Amnesty’s leadership has evolved in a very conservative direction in recent years. In January 2012, it appointed as its executive director a former State Department official prominent in the propaganda for “humanitarian interventions” – invasions by the US or its allies justified by a pretended concern about some human rights abuse in the country invaded. An early result was Amnesty’s public defence of the US-NATO war in Afghanistan, using the argument that the war was necessary to protect Afghan women’s rights. Both HRW and Amnesty were vocal opponents of the creation of the tribunal that is trying the former leaders of the Khmer Rouge.

For this collection of “conservative” and “liberal” bullies, “human rights” means the right of Washington to tell other countries what to do, particularly if those other countries are small and/or poor. To enforce this “right”, they not only advocate cutting US “aid” (much of which goes to NGOs that spend lots of it attacking the Cambodian government). They also propose that the US pressure organisations like the Asian Development Bank to cut off loans to Cambodia: in short, they would like a repeat of the sort of economic blockade imposed on Cambodia in the 1980s, when Western governments directed nearly all UN “assistance” to Cambodia to the remaining forces of the Khmer Rouge.

Of course, 99 percent of US readers know nothing about the reality behind the screaming about “unfair” elections. They don’t know that the CPP is likely to win the 28 July election for the simple reason that a sizeable majority of voters think the CPP is doing a better job of governing the country than the opposition would be able to do – a fact confirmed even by polls conducted by (Rubio and Graham, please note) the International Republican Institute.

In their own defence, the authors of the AP article might claim that they are only hacks compiling unsubstantiated NGO gossip from thousands of kilometres away, not real journalists on the spot, expected to look around at least once or twice before firing off an exposé of local failures to live up to US standards (Cambodians don’t even have a court that can prevent votes from being counted, such as the US relied on in 2000!).

The author of the other article, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal on the same day, at least is familiar with Cambodia, having been here for at least two decades. Naly Pilorge is currently the director of LICADHO, the French initials for “Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights”.

As acknowledged on its web site, the founders of LICADHO spent the 1980s in Western countries that were behind an economic blockade of Cambodia. After the Paris Peace Agreement of 1991 – when the blockading powers decided to relax the blockade – LICADHO’s founders felt it was time to return. After “contemplat[ing] how they could help alleviate the suffering Cambodians faced due to years of war and poverty” – LICADHO doesn’t mention the blockade as a cause of Cambodians’ suffering – the founders decided to set up an organisation that would tell the Cambodians who had spent the 1980s rebuilding the country what they had been doing wrong.

So LICADHO was born, with a “mandate” to campaign for what passes for “human rights” in Western capitals. This is perhaps why it tries to restore the economic blockade by regularly calling for the cutting off of foreign assistance, a call repeated in Naly Pilorge’s latest article.

The article begins by saying that previous Cambodian elections were “a time that once held hope and promise”, but “This time, the political atmosphere is one of fear and resignation”. This is the only instance I can find of LICADHO ever characterising a previous Cambodian election positively – with the possible exception of 1993, when the election was run by foreigners. Here are some samples (from the LICADHO web site) of what the organisation has said and still says about earlier elections:

1998: “marred by pre-election violence and intimidation, a last-minute change in the formula used to allocate National Assembly seats, and the dismissal of numerous complaints of election irregularities”.

2002 commune elections: “the pre-election environment was characterized by violence, intimidation and inequitable media coverage – prevented the parties from competing on a level playing field”.

2003: “general elections still marred by irregularities[,] intimidation and violence”.

After the 2008 election, when the opposition was threatening to boycott the National Assembly because of alleged election “irregularities”, LICADHO president Kek Galabru told Voice of America that LICADHO would be raising “election irregularities” with visiting US State Department official John Negroponte.

Does Naly Pilorge have a short memory? Or is she hoping that readers have one? Some might recall that LICADHO has denounced previous elections, only to have international and national observers generally approve of the way they were conducted. Not surprisingly therefore, Sam Rainsy has been trying to persuade former observers not to observe this year’s election. I don’t know if LICADHO has endorsed this campaign of Rainsy’s. Perhaps some enterprising investigative journalist at the Wall Street Journal or the Cambodia Daily could ask Naly Pilorge about that.

Predictably, Naly Pilorge roundly condemned the government’s unsuccessful attempt to stop foreign media interfering in the Cambodian election. But I really had to admire her ability to devote several paragraphs to land ownership disputes without ever alluding to the government land-titling programme, and then, in the same breath, to attack the government for giving land to poor Cambodians.

That may play well in New York – at least with the editors of the Wall Street Journal, the plaything of that well-known human rights activist Rupert Murdoch. But I don’t think there are many Cambodians who will not be able to see through it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s