NGO’s distorted view of human rights

[Published in the Phnom Penh Post on December 14, 2015.]

Readers of the article in Thursday’s Post by Chak Sopheap (“Human rights in Cambodia”), the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, might have been misled by the name of that organisation if they knew nothing of its actual history.

The CCHR was created in 2002 by Kem Sokha, when he realised that his career as a Funcinpec politician was going nowhere. With “human rights” in its name, the CCHR was immediately eligible for US government funding. It was launched with $450,000 in US government funds, and in subsequent years received several millions more, although no exact accounting has ever been presented to the Cambodian public.

Surviving a few minor incidents like sacked CCHR staff accusing Sokha of corruption and nepotism, by 2007 this US government-funded “non-government” organisation had given Sokha sufficient public exposure so that he was able to “resign” from CCHR and return to politics as the head of the Human Rights Party.

I once wrote that Sokha simply renamed CCHR as the Human Rights Party. That was incorrect because it oversimplified. It would have been foolish of Sokha to be so blatant. It was much more sensible of him to retain the “NGO” as a backup and seemingly impartial endorser of whatever he was doing at the moment in his relaunched political career.

The executive director of the CCHR obviously knows what is required, but her article is extremely thin, consisting of little more than a biased retelling of events already in public knowledge, such as Sam Rainsy’s sentence for slandering Foreign Minister Hor Namhong. She points out that there is still extensive poverty in Cambodia, as though this were the fault of a government that has greatly reduced the incidence of poverty – and without mentioning that the opposition party, of which Kem Sokha is the deputy leader, often lobbies foreign donors to cut off their assistance to Cambodia.

Chak Sopheap writes that there have been “significant achievements of the Cambodian human rights movement since the end of the civil war in 1991”. That statement deserves to be engraved in stone as a monument to the ignorance and arrogance of the “non-government” organisations that have been trying to run Cambodia for the last quarter-century.

First, the improvement in the human rights situation in Cambodia did not begin in 1991. It began in 1979, and NGOs calling themselves “the Cambodian human rights movement” had nothing to do with it. It came about because some courageous Cambodians risked their lives to help restore human rights to Cambodians by overthrowing the Khmer Rouge. For more than a decade, the new government directed the rebuilding of a destroyed society – beginning the process of reducing poverty that Chak Sopheap complains hasn’t been done quickly enough.

Second, the civil war did not end in 1991. I appreciate that Chak Sopheap was only five years old then, but she ought to read up on such things, beyond learning the year of the Paris accord.

I visited Phnom Penh at the end of 1992, and staff at the hotel where I stayed were terrified that the KR were about to return – at night, you could hear artillery shells exploding out in the surrounding provinces. On my next visit in 1995, the military situation had improved, but the civil war was still going on. A year earlier, the KR had seized a train and carried off around 100 hostages (including several foreigners, which is why it made international news). At the end of 1995, I was present in the Siem Reap airport when a mob of panicked foreign tourists seized a plane and forced it to return to Phnom Penh instead of Battambang because of a false but credible rumour that the KR were about to attack Siem Reap.

The civil war finally ended in 1998-99. Why does the year matter? Because pretending that it ended in 1991 in effect pretends that it was the Paris agreement and UNTAC that brought peace to Cambodia, and that is simply untrue. The civil war ended because the government’s military and political offensive gradually wore down the KR. Prime Minister Hun Sen’s “win-win” policy was crucial in this, and it brought a tremendous advance for human rights in Cambodia. But this is left out of Chak Sopheap’s account.

Third, “the Cambodian human rights movement” is a falsification. It makes sense to talk, for example, of a movement against a particular war, or a movement against the poll tax in Britain in 1990, but there has been no more or less coherent “movement” for human rights in Cambodia lasting 24 years.

What has happened – since 1979, not 1991 – is that human rights in Cambodia have improved. Sometimes this has been because of a government initiative; sometimes it has been because of a proposal by a donor or an NGO or anyone, which the government accepts and implements; perhaps most often it has been because improving economic conditions make it much easier for people to exercise the socio-political aspects of human rights.

That reality is quite different from Chak Sopheap’s view that the government is opposed to human rights and has to be bludgeoned into recognising them.