Since opening in September, the human rights offices in Pailin and Phnom Malai have educated hundreds of ordinary Cambodians on the importance of human rights.
But the real challenge may lie in training members of the police and military, the workers say.
“I think the people there are very happy for us to teach the citizens,” said Tiev Sokha, one of two human rights assistants in the Malai office.
Tiev Sokha, 36, a former teacher at Malai Secondary School since 1979, said she and co-worker Keo Saban lead village seminars focusing on the values enshrined in the nation’s Constitution and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“Before, they didn’t know about the rule of law,” Tiev Sokha said.
She cited one case in Malai in October when a woman fatally stabbed a man who had been drinking and cursed at her. “We must obey the Constitution,” she said. “Killing is not a good way to solve problems.”
And in Pailin in August, she claimed, police shot and killed two robbers in the forest after arresting them.
Keo Saban, 46, is a former teacher at the Sras Kaa refugee camp. So Sadam, 29, a former teacher and Untac worker, is the human rights assistant in Pailin, where he works with 77-year-old Mey Mann.
The rights workers said it was easy to teach ordinary villagers, but thought it might be more daunting to train members of the police or military. The UN rights center in Phnom Penh plans to train RCAF officers in the former Khmer Rouge zones, who in turn will train other members of the military.
David Hawk, chief of education, training and information for the Cambodia office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said much of the training will be “very elementary.”
“That there is such a thing as laws of war, or international human rights law…or the role of a military in a democracy, which is a new idea. The army is for defending the state against foreign enemies. It’s not an arm of a political party,” he said.
The offices were long delayed in opening. They were originally scheduled for July 1997, but were put on hold in the wake of the factional fighting that rocked the country. The offices are fully funded by the UN Development Program as part of a reconciliation project.
Hawk said authorities in Pailin and Phnom Malai view the opening of the offices as a measure of their integration with the rest of the nation. The former rebel zones, led by long-time guerrilla Ieng Sary, defected to the government in 1996.
The rights effort targets teachers; military and police officers; village, district and commune leaders; women’s groups and the general population.
“If it works, and it shows every prospect of working, maybe we can do the same in Anlong Veng,” Hawk said.
The UN already has rights offices in Battambang, Siem Reap, Prey Veng, Kompong Cham, Kompong Chhnang and Kampot.