Cambodia is using coronavirus as an excuse for human rights abuse
Hun Sen has repressed freedom of speech and assembly and has arrested many human rights activists who have tried to speak out for fundamental freedoms. Each attempt for a free election has been thwarted, with periodic use of extreme violence. I have been persona non grata in Phnom Penh since writing in an internationally syndicated article in early 2014 after the shooting of five protesters, in which I said Hun Sen’s government “has been getting away with murder”. That description remains no exaggeration.
With no independent judiciary to curb the power of government, those who dissent must constantly fear for their lives.
With no independent judiciary to curb the power of government, those who dissent must constantly fear for their lives. The position became dire prior to the general election of 2018, with the arrest and imprisonment on politically motivated charges of opposition leader Kem Sokha and many other politicians and grass roots activists. Kem Sokha was charged with treason and his trial is proceeding to a drum-beat of international protest.
The government disbanded the opposition party, leading to a one-party state. Over the past two years, the government has arrested and incarcerated human rights advocates, political analysts, social activists and even those from local communities who are known to have supported the now- silenced opposition party.
Those Cambodians who have, during recent years, courageously spoken truth to power have often found safety for a time by crossing the border into Thailand. That option is no longer available. On the same day that the legislation was passed, borders were sealed
With Australians and many other international observers leaving Cambodia, there is a danger that what is now happening inside the country will never be reported. When borders closed at the time of the Khmer Rouge more than 40 years ago, Cambodians suffered and died and the world outside was unaware. Now there are commentators inside those borders who are willing to risk their lives to get the message out.
What measures can Australia and others adopt to give those courageous voices some protection? A huge contribution would be to enact “Magnitsky” legislation – so named in the UK, USA and Canada to honour the Russian dissident tortured and killed after exposing government corruption – to specifically target, through sanctions such as asset freezes and visa restrictions on them and their families, those powerful Cambodian political leaders who have, so far with impunity, seriously abused the human rights of their people.
Momentum for such legislation is currently building in Europe and an enquiry into whether Australia should adopt Magnitsky-style laws in regard to Cambodia is under way, with a committee established by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Concerned Australians have the opportunity during the month of April to submit to this enquiry.
Australia was at the forefront of the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991. As Foreign Minister at the time I said, “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, since 1993, the truth of that observation has been borne out over and again under the leadership of Hun Sen. Human rights abuses are rife and democracy – always fragile – has disappeared.
The Australian government should follow the lead of others by now initiating and implementing, at the first available opportunity, Magnitsky legislation. Australia has been a world-leader in the past in showing our support for Cambodians in their pursuit of basic freedoms, justice and human rights. With the virus crisis those rights are now more imperilled than they have been since the end of the Khmer Rouge genocide, and it’s time for our voice to be again heard.
Gareth Evans was Australia’s Foreign Minister 1988-96.