Tens of thousands of opposition supporters marched through the streets of Phnom Penh on Wednesday with banners calling on the signatories of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement to revisit the accords, which were supposed to usher in a liberal, pluralist democracy in Cambodia.
Since July’s disputed election, the CNRP has turned outward for support and called for intervention from the U.N. and signatory countries on the grounds that their work is not yet done, and Cambodia is far from being the democracy that was once hoped for.
That strategy, however, is unlikely to rally the international community into action.
Cambodia’s place in geopolitics has shifted significantly since the signing of the agreement 22 years ago Wednesday, said John Ciorciari, a Cambodia expert at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.
“The Agreement’s main relevance is that it reminds key signatories of the vision they held out for Cambodia in the 1990s—a vision that sits uncomfortably beside current political realities in the country,” Mr. Ciorciari said.
“The Paris Peace Agreement was largely a way to disentangle the major regional powers from the Cambodia conflict as the Cold War thawed in Southeast Asia. In that sense, the Agreement worked well,” he said. “Yet the rapid international pullback from Cambodia after the 1993 elections shows that to most signatories, the Agreement was more a way to get out of Cambodia than to stay deeply involved.”
Article 25 of the Paris Agreement states: “The Signatories shall, in good faith and in a spirit of cooperation, resolve through peaceful means any disputes with respect to the implementation of this Agreement.”
However, in the current post-election dispute between long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, the international community has been largely silent and, apart from the U.S., Japan and a number of European countries, foreign embassies have mostly endorsed Mr. Hun Sen’s new government.
Surya Subedi, the U.N.’s special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia, said that the international community is still compelled by the Agreement to ensure that its promises are fulfilled. Mr. Subedi’s own position, which is meant to inform the international community of the government’s progress in carrying out its human rights responsibilities, was among the Signatories lasting commitments to Cambodia, he said.
The Paris Peace Agreement “was meant to last until the state institutions created under the new constitution were able to operate in accordance with the principles of plural liberal democracy, including the doctrine of separation of powers, judicial independence, the rule of law (not necessarily rule by law) and the ability of parliament to hold the executive to account and the National Election Committee to hold free, fair and peaceful elections,” Mr. Subedi said in an email.
By any independent measure, few of those standards have been met in the 22 years since the agreement was signed.
Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the Australia Defense Force Academy, said the present state of global politics, in which the U.N. Security Council cannot even come to a consensus over whether to intervene in Syria, means that calls for help in Cambodia are wildly unrealistic.
“The permanent 5 [members of the Council] would never cooperate on behalf of Sam Rainsy or others [in Cambodia], because one side or the other would veto,” he said, adding that the level of human rights abuses in Cambodia today also placed it fairly low down on the list of international priorities for the U.N.
“It’s not that [Cambodia] isn’t important. It’s that the issues of electoral fraud being talked about don’t seem important compared to chemical weapons in Syria or extremists gaining ground in Libya and onwards,” he said.
CNRP president Sam Rainsy admits that Cambodia’s problems are relatively insignificant compared to other countries, but the country should not accept less than what was promised 22 years ago by the international community when it signed on to help Cambodia achieve a liberal democracy that protected human rights.
“I have been told so everywhere I went to. I have been told there are many other priorities; that Cambodia is not on their radar,” Mr. Rainsy said.
“But I think this is a matter of principal. Because we are in Cambodia, we cannot say this is good enough for Cambodia,” he said.
“A universal standard should apply to all countries in all circumstances. If you say that we don’t have time—‘this is good enough for Cambodia’—you get involved in a process that is further and further from the principles [the Paris Peace Agreement signatories] were meant to advocate,” he said.
“This kind of election would never be accepted in France and the U.S., why should it be accepted in Cambodia?”
Yoshihiro Higuchi, deputy head of mission at the Japanese Embassy, said that the role of international signatories under the Paris Peace Agreement was unclear, and that the CNRP has yet to explain exactly how it thinks foreign countries can help resolve the present political dispute.
“The question remains open whether the Agreement is direct or not, to what extent there is an obligation to abide by it and what signatories would have the obligation to do or not. So we are trying to figure out what the CNRP are thinking about,” Mr. Higuchi said.
“The Peace Agreement laid down the framework with which the Cambodian people elect their own government by fair and open elections in 1993. So this is the main purpose. Of course, the international community should accompany efforts by Cambodians, but now Cambodians should take the driver’s seat and the international community, including Japan, is accompanying their efforts,” he said.