Kerry Kennedy Brings Human Rights Message to Cambodia

For Kerry Kennedy, who is in Cambodia this week to launch a school education program on human rights, the notion of rights abuse started as something very personal.

No matter that her family was the closest to royalty that the US had ever known, and that her childhood was, as she said, “very, very privileged and extremely happy,” at about 10 years old she got confronted with a situation that left her in an agonizing dilemma.

“When I was in fifth grade, I found out that very good friends of my family who were at my house every weekend, the father was beating up the mother,” she said in interview yesterday.

“I just didn’t know what to do with that, how to deal with it…. Should I tell my mother? But this was her friend…. I was confused, and I was deeply upset.”

While Ms Kennedy was in high school, one of her best friends was gay, and he was one of the first people to die of AIDS. He was alone because he had not wanted to reveal that he was gay. And during her first year at university, two of her friends were raped.

“Those were all chaotic events, sad, overwhelming,” Ms Kennedy said. Only when she went to work for the human rights group Am­nesty International did she realize these cases had been human rights abuse, and that there were laws and ways to handle them, she said.

“In Cambodia…I want to share that with other people who are dealing with chaos in their lives, not really knowing what they could do, to tell them that they are not alone out there,” she said.

Ms Kennedy, whose uncle, former US President John F Kennedy, was assassinated in 1963 and whose father, Robert F Kennedy, was also assassinated five years later when she was 9, has been a human rights advocate since 1981. She serves as president of the Robert F Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights based in Washington, DC.

The program she brings to Cam­­­bodia is called “Speak Truth to Power” after her 2000 book on hu­man rights defenders she had interviewed, such as Tibet’s Dalai Lama and South African activist Desmond Tutu.

Plans are to have a group of Cambodian teachers review the program, which uses those de­fen­ders’ comments to raise is­sues, and adapt it to Cambodia, Ms Kennedy said. The Center for Cambodian Civic Education is coordinating the project.

Photos of those defenders taken by Pulitzer Prize winner Eddie Adams are exhibited at Pannasastra University, and a play based on the book and written by playwright Ariel Dorfman will be presented at 5 pm tonight by the Phnom Penh Players in the university’s auditorium. Ad­mission is free.

Talking about the situation in Cambodia, Ms Kennedy said: “As a journalist, or an activist, our job is to push, push, push, and say this can be better, that should be better, what is wrong. It’s important to look at what’s right as well.

“This country has come a very long way. What would really be a tragedy is that it started to go back to increasing repression, being an increasingly closed society. And I think that’s the struggle that people are in right now: What is the future of this country, increasingly open or increasingly closed?” she said.

Related Stories

Latest News

The Weekly DispatchA weekly newsletter from The Cambodia Daily delivering news, analysis and opinion to your inbox. Published every Friday at 11:30am. Sign up today.