Opinion: Upcoming Elections Test the West’s Rights Commitments

Rupert Abbott is a human rights lawyer and co-founder of the RightsStart human rights expert hub. Catherine Morris is a human rights lawyer and academic and the founder of Peacemakers Trust.

On Sunday, local elections will take place across Cambodia—a precursor to the crucial national election next year. These elections will gauge the state of democracy in the country and, in a new era of U.S. isolationism, will be a key test for the West’s commitment to human rights.

‘Smash the Teeth’

Voters will go to the polls amid a disturbing crackdown, with the government brazenly ignoring its international human rights obligations. Several activists are in jail, and Sam Rainsy, a key opposition figure, has been officially exiled—all victims of the politicized courts. Impunity continues for unlawful killings—including the assassination of political analyst Kem Ley last year.

The long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party seems nervous. It came close to losing the 2013 national election, despite stacking the odds firmly in its favor. While the party has touted reforms, corruption remains pervasive and gross inequality continues.

Its crucial role in rebuilding and developing the country—following the ouster of the Khmer Rouge regime four decades ago—may no longer be enough to woo young voters.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has once again threatened war should the opposition win the elections. Defense Minister Tea Banh has vowed to “smash the teeth” of anyone demonstrating against the results.                           

Such threats likely portray genuine fear of losing power, and there is no reason to believe they are made in vain. Four years ago, in the months following the national elections, security forces opened fire on protests in Phnom Penh, leaving up to eight dead and scores injured.

A Muted Response

As U.S. President Donald Trump vows “America first” and the E.U. struggles with a series of crises, a small country—and market—such as Cambodia risks falling completely off the radar.

As elections in Cambodia near, the response by the U.S. and other Western governments to human rights abuses has been muted. There have been some pro forma statements urging that the rights of jailed activists be respected—but no public calls for their immediate release.

And there has been no international condemnation of the threats of war and mass violence against the Cambodian people.

Western embassies in Phnom Penh do provide valuable support to human rights defenders and their organizations. But there is a sense that Cambodia is receiving very little attention in Washington or Brussels, and concern that financial support to human rights groups will be cut as Mr. Trump seeks to slash U.S. aid.

Put Human Rights First

The elections are an opportunity for Western governments to show they do care how governments across the globe are treating their people.

The moral case for promoting human rights in Cambodia is strong. In recent history, perhaps no country has suffered more at the hands of others.

The U.S.’s carpet bombing of the country in the 1970s killed an estimated 150,000 civilians and contributed to the rise of the Khmer Rouge. The West’s aid and trade embargo against Cambodia in the 1980s piled more misery on its people.

Many of the challenges facing the country today can be traced back to those decades.

Since the U.N. peacekeeping mission there in the early 1990s, Western governments have provided substantial support for development and democratization, but the job is far from finished.

Governments also have treaty obligations to promote protection of human rights internationally—in the case of Cambodia, the U.S. and other parties to the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements have open-ended commitments to do so.

It is also in the interest of the West to promote human rights, making allies of peoples, not just governments. Respect for human rights can help avert instability and conflict—real dangers in Cambodia—and encourages development and prosperity.

Peaceful Transition

Western governments can do much to promote human rights and support the Cambodian people in shaping their country’s future.

They should make it clear publicly that there are red lines when it comes to violating human rights and consequences for crossing them, which should include smart sanctions against individuals and their families complicit in serious human rights violations. The U.S. and others should push for high level visits to Cambodia, to include meetings with victims of human rights violations.

They should state clearly that they will not recognize the election results unless political prisoners are released and voters and politicians can participate freely and without threat of violence.

And they should support initiatives in Cambodia focused on reconciliation and planning for a future peaceful transition of power, within a political party or to another, depending on election results.

Now is the time for the West to follow through on its commitments to Cambodia, not to look the other way.

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