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Cambodia Thirty Years after Paris

Address to Webinar on International Day for the Prevention of Genocide, Human Rights in Cambodia - 30 Years After the Paris Peace Agreements, hosted by UNSW Diplomacy Training Program, Online, 9 December 2021

It is hard to overemphasise the importance of the Paris Peace Agreements signed thirty years ago, on 23 October 1991. For years before, 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 I hope the many international participants in this webinar will forgive me saying that Australia can remain proud of the role we played in making that happen. Working closely with my Indonesian colleague and friend Ali Alatas, 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 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 found it very difficult to maintain any kind of discipline over its members when it comes to internal democracy and human rights issues – with Myanmar just the most recent example. And with Cambodia itself now becoming chair of ASEAN in 2022, the prospects of ASEAN placing any collective pressure on Phnom Penh seems even more fanciful.

Maybe our Moderator today, Yuyun Wahyuningrun, as Indonesia’s representative on the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, can persuade us that my pessimism is misplaced: I live in hope!

As to UN mechanisms, it has been hard to energise the Human Rights Council to take any kind of effective action 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 (who we are sorry has been unable through illness to join us today, and send our best wishes). And it remains even harder to engage 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 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.

Among the country’s many brave human rights defenders – the founders of the first organisations in the early 1990s, and those who have carried on the struggle since – is Chak Sopheap, head of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, who I am delighted to be sharing this platform with today. Her story, and that of a dozen others, is superbly told in Sue Coffey’s book, Seeking Justice in Cambodia, published by Melbourne University Press in 2018. 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 has at last this month secured the passage of 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 applied with any vigour, but 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. And it is time for the voice of many other countries to be heard as well.

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 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.