EU resolution: less and more than meets the eye

[Published by the Cambodia Herald on December 4, 2015.]

There was not really much new last week when Sam Rainsy had some of his friends persuade the European Parliament to pass a motion telling the Cambodian government what it should be doing. He’s been behaving this way for a long time.

Three and a half years ago, I published an open letter to Sam Rainsy explaining why I thought it was a bad idea for him to seek public office by winning support in the legislatures of various foreign countries.

At the time, Rainsy was circulating internationally an appeal for the creation of an “International Parliamentary Committee for Democratic Elections in Cambodia”. I pointed out that this effort “appears to be an attempt to entice gullible foreigners into intervening in Cambodia’s internal politics. That might seem easier than winning the votes of Cambodian citizens, but the latter is the only road to success in a democracy.” (https://letters2pppapers.wordpress.com/archives/2012-2/an-open-letter-to-sam-rainsy/)

Rainsy soon abandoned his plans for the international parliamentary committee – not because of my advice, but because he couldn’t find enough gullible foreign parliamentarians to make the organisation credible.

But Rainsy has not changed his basic approach. If he can’t put together an organisation of foreign parliamentarians to run Cambodia’s elections, getting the occasional resolution through some foreign legislature is still a whole lot easier than winning the votes of a majority of Cambodians. As I noted in that article three and a half years ago: “It is unfortunately easy for a body like the European Parliament to be swayed by one-sided accounts of the situation in a country with which most of its members have little familiarity.”

The European Parliament is not alone in that respect, but it is more inclined to that failing than many legislatures. Perhaps this is because the European Parliament is really only a semi-parliament having very few real powers: it cannot initiate legislation, but can only approve or reject measures proposed by the European Commission. Hence its 751 members have a lot of time on their hands in which they can write meaningless resolutions about any other country.

But it would be a good idea for these parliamentarians to spend a bit more of their excess time gaining some knowledge of the countries that they issue instructions to. In the case of Cambodia, the recent resolution, as originally written, betrayed a number of indications that its authors simply regurgitated some badly digested misinformation fed to them by the CNRP.

For instance, the original version asserted that “Sam Rainsy had already received a royal pardon” in the Hor Namhong defamation case that led to the recent order for his arrest. In fact, the pardon applied only to Rainsy’s convictions for tearing up border posts and publicly misrepresenting border maps, as anyone who takes the trouble to read it can discover.

The resolution then went on to complain that the decision recognising the court ruling and therefore withdrawing Rainsy’s membership was passed by “the ruling party-dominated National Assembly”, as though majority rule was some sort of weird Cambodian perversion of good government. Is it not the norm in Europe that a majority in the national legislature determines which party rules? Is the European Parliament really advocating that governments should be supported by only a minority of their national legislatures?

A few paragraphs further on, the resolution declared that the CNRP “had accused Hun Sen’s party of stealing the 2013 general election”. This is true, but what is also true is that the CNRP, in the two and a half years since the general election, has never been able to specify where and how this alleged “theft” occurred. Apparently unfamiliar with the fact that not every political accusation is true, the European parliamentarians overlooked the CNRP’s failure to provide any evidence or specifics, and, in their next mention of the 2013 elections, called them “fundamentally flawed”.

Those ignorant comments on the elections were removed from the final version of the resolution, but the attitude remains that the opposition accusation makes the Cambodian government illegitimate. Hence the resolution’s authors demand that the Cambodian state’s investigation and prosecution of crimes like the mob attack on two CNRP parliamentarians in October be overseen by the United Nations.

If this sounds familiar as well as silly, it is because the CNRP also demanded a UN investigation of its unspecified complaints about the 2013 general election. Just as Sam Rainsy seemed then not to realise that the UN had no body or mechanism for investigating member countries’ national elections, he now appears not to understand that the UN does not possess an investigative police force that can be dispatched to Cambodia or anywhere else. It would help to remove a lot of confusion from Cambodian politics if someone influential in the CNRP could summon up the courage to explain to Sam Rainsy (and the European Parliament) that the UN is not really a world government.

Evidently on the assumption that the European Parliament would be almost as valid a government of Cambodia as the UN would be, the resolution also directs the current government on legislation it should pass – or, mostly, repeal.

Not surprisingly, central in this list is the Law on Associations and NGOs (LANGO), which was finally adopted in August despite a years-long campaign against it by a noisy minority of Cambodian NGOs, many of them foreign government-funded. The CNRP relies on this NGO clique to provide pretended objectivity for its complaints about the government, so of course the CNRP gives a high priority to protecting this misnamed “civil society”.

According to the resolution, there’s a problem in that “civil society in Cambodia has been excluded from the LANGO drafting process”. This is the kind of vague language used by people who want to mislead their audience but be able to say they were misunderstood if the truth comes out.

It seems certain that “civil society in Europe” was excluded from the drafting process of the European Parliament resolution, but that clearly didn’t bother its authors. “Civil society” is normally considered a section of society separate and distinct from government and business (which is why NGOs funded by governments are not really part of civil society). If members of civil society were really involved in drafting legislation, they would cease to be part of civil society.

This does not at all mean that governments cannot or should not consult sections of civil society about legislation that affects them. But the resolution carefully avoided saying that “civil society” was not consulted about the LANGO. It would have been too easy to prove that a lie by pointing to the fact that consultation between the government and NGOs about the legislation went on for well over a decade. So the resolution’s drafters chose a formulation that would mislead readers but leave them an escape clause.

The resolution also claims that the LANGO “has given state authorities arbitrary powers to shut down and block the creation of human rights-defending organisations and has already begun deterring human rights defence work in Cambodia and impeding civil society action”.

Does the European Parliament know of any instances in which the alleged “arbitrary powers” were actually used to shut down existing NGOs or block the creation of new ones? No example of such arbitrariness is mentioned in the resolution. Never mind. If necessary, Sam Rainsy can surely find a would-be NGO director who will say the LANGO makes her/him afraid to open the would-be NGO.

The resolution goes on to mention other existing or draft laws (on trade unions, cybercrime and telecommunications) that the CNRP must think it might like to make an issue of at some point. The resolution’s prescriptions here are the kind of vague generalities (e.g. “in line with Cambodia’s human rights obligations and commitments”) to be expected from people who are trying to sound serious while knowing little or nothing of what they are talking about.

If there are problems with some of this legislation, which would hardly be surprising since few draft laws are perfect as first written, opposition (or government) members of the National Assembly could raise those problems and propose solutions. But the CNRP has a different approach: it thinks the role of opposition parliamentarians is to boycott the parliament and pass resolutions through foreign legislatures.

*****

The above frequently mentions the role of Sam Rainsy, but his role should not be allowed to obscure a larger picture.

While Rainsy thinks he is manipulating the European Parliament, and is in fact doing so on the fairly trivial level of misleading it about facts, that is only a small part of what is going on. The European Parliament and the governments of the wealthy countries would still be telling Cambodia and other poor countries what to do even if Sam Rainsy had never been born.

Rainsy is only one foolish tool of a system in which rich countries impose their will on poorer countries so that the rich countries stay rich at the expense of the poor. In the past the system was called euphemisms such as “mission civilisatrice” or “white man’s burden”. Those phrases have lost their intended impact, and these days the rich countries have been trying to substitute new terms, such as “encouraging good governance”. When was the last time the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for good governance through a UN-supervised investigation of a crime in the USA like the police murders of Black people or the recent mass shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic?

Like any good colonialist, the European Parliament waves the big stick in its resolution: we can cut off your money (as Rainsy has often urged donors to do). This of course is an improvement on old stand-bys like threatening to drop bombs or send troops, but the change is not caused by any decrease of evil intentions; it merely reflects the reality that imperial bullies today lack some of the powers they used to wield and would wield again if they were able. People who endorse things like the recent European Parliament resolution should think seriously about what they are really endorsing.