25 Years After Peace Accord, Discussing an ‘Unfinished Project’

Marking 25 years since Cambodia and 18 other countries signed a sweeping agreement to restore peace and plant democracy in the country, experts and observers lamented on Tuesday how far the country was from fulfilling the principles of the deal.

“Cambodia has made progress, but does that mean Cambodia has achieved peace?” asked Wan-Hea Lee, the country representative for the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who was among the panelists at a forum in Phnom Penh.

Ms. Lee spoke of a litany of problems facing the country, such as the state of the health care and education systems, the treatment of indigenous minorities, the challenge of protecting workers’ rights, the narrowing of space for political criticism and the lack of judicial independence.

“Peace is more than the mere absence of war,” Ms. Lee said, describing the Paris Peace Agreements as an “unfinished project.”

When the accord was signed in 1991, Cambodia was reeling from two decades of war. U.N. forces were meant to take control of the country to usher it through a transition to democracy, laying the foundations for a government based on human rights and multiparty elections.

But in the decades since power was passed to an elected government in 1993, the U.N.’s influence has waned, prompting many to question whether the international body has become ineffectual.

“There are those saying that more needs to be done,” Ms. Lee said. “But that’s the heart of the question: What more can be done?”

Beyond simply “naming and shaming,” the office was taking action through all available channels—“diplomatically, assistance, all the different means that are available for those of us who are not nationals, either individually or institutionally,” she said.

“Much of what can be done is being done.”

Since the peace agreement was signed by Cambodia and 18 other countries on October 23, 1991, there has been plenty of change and progress, spurred along by economic growth and poverty alleviation.

But panelists on Tuesday noted that when it came to principles related to democracy and human rights, Cambodia was still far from the target.

Koul Panha, the executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said many political institutions had become travesties of their original intent.

Comparing the 1993 election—overseen by the U.N. and secured by its soldiers—to the current political environment, Mr. Panha noted that the atmosphere for free elections has deteriorated.

“One party has control over the police, judiciary and military,” Mr. Panha said of the CPP, which includes many of the country’s top police and military officials in its standing and central committees.

“In my view, the election of 1993 wasn’t a bad election at all compared to subsequent elections,” he said. “It was an election according to international standards.”

Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, agreed that the failure to form a neutral military was thwarting democratic progress.

“The Constitution states that the armed forces should be neutral. But in reality, the armed forces—especially the army—are related closely to the ruling party,” Mr. Kol said.

“I’ve observed that the political model is three steps forward, three steps back.”

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