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Cambodia Thirty Years After Paris: Where to from here?

Keynote Address to Commemoration of 30th Anniversary of Paris Peace Agreements organised by Cambodian Australian Federation, Cambodian Association of Victoria and Cambodian Alliance for Paris Peace Agreement on Cambodia, Online, 23 October 2021

It is hard to overemphasise the importance of the Paris Peace Agreements signed thirty years ago today. For years before, as the participants in this event will hardly need reminding, Cambodia had been on its knees – ravaged successively by massive US bombing during the Vietnam war, by civil war, by the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, by invasion by the Vietnamese, and then by civil war again. These onslaughts – above all the horrific Khmer Rouge genocide – caused the deaths of some two million Cambodians and effectively destroyed the lives of a great many more.

The 1991 Paris accords did bring lasting peace to the country, and Australia can remain proud of the role we played in making that happen. We initiated the diplomatic strategy that, after many failed previous attempts, finally worked. It was set out in detail in the ‘Red Book’, still widely remembered by Cambodians, which we prepared for the crucial Jakarta Informal Meeting of February 1990. And the strategy worked essentially by designing an unprecedentedly hands-on role for the United Nations which gave China a face-saving way of withdrawing its support for the Khmer Rouge. Australians can also remain proud of General John Sanderson’s leadership of the UNTAC military mission during the critical 1991-93 transition period, which was crucial to its success.

But, as I said when representing Australia as our Foreign Minister at the Paris signing ceremony in 1991, ‘Peace and Freedom are not prizes, which, once gained, can never be lost. They must be won again each day. Their foundations must be sunk deep into the bedrock of political stability, economic prosperity and above all, the observance of human rights.’

Sadly, the truth of that observation has been borne out repeatedly over the last three decades. We brought peace to Cambodia, and with it some overdue national economic development. But as to democracy and human rights – the other two core elements of the Paris Agreements – the record has been one of dismal failure.

The rot set in early. The 1993 election was a brilliant success, with 90 per cent turnout. It was an incredibly moving experience to watch those voters in family groups – everyone from grannies to new babies – lined up for hours at polling stations across the country knowing the high risk of bomb attacks, but with so much joyful confidence in the future. But it did not result in the expected win for Hun Sen and his governing Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). He refused to accept the result, and the international community – far too meekly, in retrospect – allowed him to become joint prime minister. It was the last fully free and fair election Cambodia was to hold.

Hun Sen has been clever and utterly ruthless. Within a short time he had vanquished his opponents and taken steps to ensure no opposition party could meaningfully contest his leadership. And over the years that have passed, the CPP has become synonymous with corruption, land evictions, control of the judiciary and army, political repression, wide scale arrests and imprisonment, physical threats to those protesting the loss of human rights – and, on occasion, outright murder (as I called it out in an internationally syndicated article in 2014 which, understandably enough, enraged my former negotiating partner…).

Over thirty years, moreover, Hun Sen has amassed vast fortunes for his family, including by siphoning off many millions of dollars in aid contributed by the West. All this while almost 30 per cent of Cambodians live barely above the poverty line, and a great many more survive on no more than around $3 a day, with Covid-19 adding immensely to economic as well as social distress. The World Bank ranks Cambodia’s control of corruption as in the lowest 10 per cent in the world.

From time to time hopes have been raised that maybe things were changing. In 2012 a wave of serious organised opposition began to develop, and the main opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), almost won the 2013 election. But this was not an opportunity that Hun Sen would allow to be repeated. Repression intensified on multiple fronts, and with the 2018 general election looming, in late 2017 Hun Sen arrested the Opposition CNRP leader, Kem Sokha, charged him with treason, and disbanded his party altogether. Thousands fled overseas. There are no fig-leaves left: Cambodia cannot now be described as anything other than a dictatorship.

So what can be done now?

When it comes to the various relevant international organisations, I am afraid my hopes are not high. ASEAN remains hugely important for its role in maintaining peace among its historically very quarrelsome members, and as an organisation for economic and technical cooperation, but it has shown itself to be completely incapable of maintaining any kind of discipline over its members when it comes to internal democracy and human rights issues – with Myanmar just the most recent example.

Despite the efforts of successive UN rapporteurs on human rights in Cambodia, appointed pursuant to the Paris Peace Agreements and starting with Australia’s own Michael Kirby, it has been hard to energise the Human Rights Council to take any kind of effective action, let alone the much more powerful Security Council. Partly that has been a product of the protection routinely given Hun Sen’s government by China. By far Cambodia’s biggest investor and creditor, Beijing treats it for all practical purposes as a wholly owned subsidiary, relying on its support to undermine ASEAN unanimity on issues important to China, like the South China Sea.

I know there continues to be support among Cambodian activists, which will no doubt be repeated on this anniversary occasion, for the reconvening of the Paris International Conference on Cambodia, as provided for in the 1991 Agreements. But there is no evident support for this from any of the Permanent Five Security Council members or other key participants, all of whom have multiple other current distractions. And the strongest steps the Conference could take if it did meet again would be to refer human rights concerns to ‘the competent organs of the United Nations’ – back, in other words, to the essentially impotent Human Rights Council.

I believe the greatest hope for Cambodia’s future lies with its own people, backed up with support and pressure not from multilateral organisations but individual countries genuinely committed to human rights and democracy and who are capable of exercising some influence.

Cambodia’s people both at home and abroad have shown extraordinary courage and resilience in the face of adversity, and – whenever they have had the chance – that they want above all the restoration of decent governance. With a median age of twenty-five, its population the youngest of any South East Asian country, the country has wonderful potential. And younger generation leaders have continued to struggle, against almost impossible odds, to keep the flames of justice alight.

The story of many of the country’s brave human rights defenders – the founders of the first organisations in the early 1990s, and those who have carried on the struggle since – is superbly told in Sue Coffey’s book, Seeking Justice in Cambodia, published in 2018, and I congratulate her again for all she has done to keep that flame burning. It is really important that this story continue to be told, and that its message of hope gets through to the next generation.

Beyond their own resources and commitment, what the Cambodian people really need is external support, not just in the form of sympathetic resolutions from multilateral forums, but hard practical measures from individual countries that can put real pressure on Hun Sen and those around him to modify their behaviour. This means in particular, in the context of the next general election in 2023, pressure to reverse the ban on the main opposition party and enable the genuine exercise of universal civil and political rights across the whole community.

Targeted individual sanctions against key regime members and their families – basically asset freezes and other financial restrictions, and visa bans – are the most useful forms of such pressure. After dragging its feet for years, the Australian Government at last announced in August its intention to enact a ‘Magnitsky Act’ to make easier the application of such sanctions in human rights cases – following US, UK and Canada legislation so named to honour the Russian dissident tortured and killed after exposing government corruption. It may be a triumph of hope over experience to believe that this will be passed any time soon, or be strong enough or applied with any vigour when it is. But when it is operational, the Hun Sen government should be one of its first targets.

Australia has been a world-leader in the past in supporting the Cambodian people in their yearning for life and liberty. With their basic rights and freedoms now more imperilled than they have been since the end of the Khmer Rouge genocide, it is time for our voice to be once again strongly heard.

But at the end of the day it is the voice of the Cambodian people, both at home and abroad, that will matter most. As I said in another forum organised by Hong Lim three years ago, the World Khmer Conference, ‘Everything I know about the pride, courage and resilience of the Cambodian people tells me that the overwhelming majority clearly want the restoration of decency and dignity in the way they are governed – so that Cambodia will in fact at last become the country we all wanted it to be when we finally put to rest the ravages of genocide and civil war’. I have enormous confidence that, with the continuing commitment of so many Cambodians, including those participating in this event, there will prevail that will for decency and dignity, for genuine democracy and genuine respect for human rights.

The video version of this speech can be found here.