Rhona Smith, please don’t repeat Subedi’s mistakes

[Published by the Cambodia Herald on 23 September 2015.]

Professor Rhona Smith, the new United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, is on her first visit to Phnom Penh in that capacity (she has been here before as a visiting professor at Pannasastra University).

According to a government spokesperson, in her meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen, Professor Smith said that “she will work with the government to promote the protection of human rights without violating the sovereignty and integrity” of Cambodia.

I know nothing about Professor Smith and so cannot make any predictions about how she will perform her role. But if she follows the words just quoted, she will be a vast improvement on her predecessor, Professor Surya Subedi.

I am confident that Subedi never said publicly that he saw his role as infringing on Cambodian sovereignty. However, that lack of warning didn’t restrain his behaviour.

In 2012, a year before the elections to the National Assembly, Subedi produced a “report” on Cambodian electoral procedures that called for changes to any number of laws and procedures, including those on the NEC, voter registration, media regulation and even judicial structures (he wanted the creation of a special electoral court).

Fortunately, after the opposition Sam Rainsy Party and Human Rights Party had used it in their campaign to discredit the 2013 elections before they occurred, Subedi’s report was soon forgotten, as it richly deserved: most of its recommendations were unnecessary, counterproductive and/or mutually contradictory. (For my critique at the time, see https://letters2pppapers.wordpress.com/archives/2012-2/subedis-proposals-wont-improve-cambodian-elections/.)

More recently, in November, Subedi issued a press release on “judicial independence” that was predictably recirculated by Radio Free Asia and similar outlets. On examination, this revealed that Subedi was simply repeating nice-sounding words in an effort to make Cambodian courts rule the way that people like Surya Subedi thought they should. (See my comments at https://letters2pppapers.wordpress.com/archives/2014-2/another-illogical-cure-from-surya-subedi/.)

Subedi’s procedure was simply to mouth empty platitudes (“democratic institutions” should be “effective”) without giving much, or any, thought to what those concepts might mean in Cambodia, now. This played into the hands of opposition politicians and the NGOs who support them, many of which are experienced at using the rhetoric of democracy, if not the practice, to pressure the government.

One hopes that Professor Smith will show more ability to deal with reality rather than empty phrases.

According to press reports, in their meeting, Hun Sen suggested to Smith that she ought to look at the matter of racism – a reference to the Cambodian National Rescue Party’s attacks on ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia.

After the CNRP made hostility to “yuon” central in its 2013 election campaign, gangs of CNRP supporters used physical violence to block voters they considered “yuon” on election day (see some examples at https://letters2pppapers.wordpress.com/archives/2014-2/how-the-era-covers-for-violence-and-racism/).

If Subedi noticed those incidents, he didn’t say much if anything about them. However, in January 2014, seven months after a government spokesperson had publicly complained that Subedi’s statements never criticised opposition racism, and after CNRP demonstrators had looted and destroyed shops that they thought were owned by “yuon”, Subedi managed to tell a press conference that he was “alarmed by the anti-Vietnamese language allegedly used in public by the opposition” (Phnom Penh Post, January 17, 2014).

Did you get that? There was “ anti-Vietnamese language allegedly used” by the CNRP leaders. Maybe they hadn’t said that Vietnamese were responsible for nearly everything that’s wrong in Cambodia or that the government is a “Vietnamese puppet” – it seems the United Nations budget didn’t extend to having researchers find out whether CNRP had really said such things.

Then Subedi in the same press conference went on to explain that the CNRP leaders had assured him that they were working for “tolerance and racial harmony” – not alleged tolerance and harmony. And: “Whatever measures other people inferred from their statements, it was not their [CNRP leaders’] intention” that they should go and do the things they did. Of course not: when the CNRP leaders said that hordes of Vietnamese were being brought into the country to vote for the government and that CNRP supporters should remain at polling stations all day after they had voted, they didn’t intend that those supporters should actually do anything. Of course not.

This history is important. Why? Because racism, if it’s not challenged whenever it raises its ugly head, doesn’t go away; it grows and festers. Europeans who in the 17th century thought that it was acceptable to enslave Africans helped to create tragedies that are still being played out in the United States and many other places today. Germans who in the 1920s said things like “Hitler shouldn’t exaggerate, but his criticisms of the Jews have a point” contributed to the Holocaust.

The record shows that Surya Subedi did his best to avoid confronting, or even recognising, anti-Vietnamese racism being encouraged for political reasons.

If an ordinary Cambodian or a visitor avoids that, the impact is not very great: usually, only a large number of individuals doing or not doing something make a noticeable difference. But the UN special rapporteur has an aura of being the judge on behalf of the “international community” of the standing of human rights in Cambodia. He or she can therefore help to shape the behaviour of larger numbers.

If such an authority devotes his/her time and effort to trying to rearrange the procedures for settling electoral disputes but has little or nothing to say when people are prevented from voting because of their perceived ethnicity, that tells Cambodians that technical fixes of electoral or judicial procedures are more important than the treatment of minorities. That idea is a lie.

That is why I think that Surya Subedi’s role undermined human rights in Cambodia rather than advancing them. Let’s hope that Rhona Smith will not repeat Subedi’s mistakes.