U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday paid tribute to slain Cambodian environmental activist Chut Wutty and praised the ongoing work of human rights advocate Chak Sopheap during a speech in which he promised greater U.S. support for rights crusaders whose lives are endangered by their work.
Speaking at the 10th Clinton Global Initiative in New York City—an annual gathering of world leaders, NGO executives and rights activists—Mr. Obama promised to broaden U.S. assistance for civil society groups and to scrutinize governments that attempt to restrict their efforts.
“This growing crackdown on civil society is a campaign to undermine the very idea of democracy. And what’s needed is an even stronger campaign to defend democracy,” he told the audience.
Mr. Obama paid tribute to four activists who lost their lives in their attempts to draw attention to injustices, including Chut Wutty, who was shot dead in April 2012 while investigating reports of illegal logging in Koh Kong province, and whose death, critics say, was never properly investigated.
“So today, we honor those who have given their lives. Among them…in Cambodia, Chut Wutty,” Mr. Obama said, pledging that the U.S. would actively oppose efforts by foreign governments to dictate the nature of the support it provides to rights groups.
Mr. Obama also singled out Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), who is in the U.S. as part of the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program and was in attendance Tuesday.
“Sopheap saw a fellow human rights advocate hauled off by the police, and she could have fled, too, but she says she’s never thought of leaving Cambodia even for minute,” he said. “So she keeps organizing and marching and mobilizing youth to demand justice.”
“We could not be prouder of you, and we stand with you,” Mr. Obama told Ms. Sopheap.
Chut Wutty’s son, Chhoeuy Odom Reaksmey, said Wednesday that he had read about Mr. Obama’s remarks on the Internet and was proud that the U.S. president had recognized his father’s work.
“I am a proud Khmer child because my dad lived and struggled to advocate for the protection of Cambodia’s environment and finally, the president of the U.S….acknowledged him,” he said.
“It is a measure of his high value and respect for my father, which contrasts with the prime minister of Cambodia, who didn’t even issue a condolence letter for my dad.”
CCHR chairman Ou Virak said that by recognizing the efforts of two Cambodian activists, Mr. Obama was effectively directing his general remarks about the persecution of rights workers toward Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.
“This was definitely a very significant speech,” he said. “Chut Wutty sacrificed his life, and he represents the range of human rights issues that Cambodia faces, especially impunity.”
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, agreed that Mr. Obama’s speech highlighted important human rights issues, but said he did not think the U.S. president’s remarks were necessarily directed at Cambodia.
“[Human rights] is a serious cause, but it relates to everywhere in the world, I don’t think it relates to the Cambodian government specifically. We work so hard to improve the situation here but it is a collaborative effort,” he said.
“The government encourages all its people to respect human rights, so we can’t just blame the government.”
(Additional reporting by Hul Reaksmey)