US-based rights monitor Human Rights Watch has criticized the US Defense and State departments for co-hosting a multinational peacekeeping event with RCAF, saying Washington was subverting its own efforts to promote human rights in Cambodia.
The Angkor Sentinel 10 military exercise—which begins Monday, as more than 1,000 military officers from 23 nations arrive in Kompong Speu province—is part of the Global Peace Operations Initiative, a joint US-UN peacekeeper-training program. Though previous GPOI hosts include Indonesia, Mongolia and Bangladesh, HRW’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said bringing the exercise to Cambodia was “outrageous,” considering RCAF’s human rights record.
“The US undermines its protests against the Cambodian government for rampant rights abuses like forced evictions when it showers international attention and funds on military units involved in grabbing land and other human rights violations,” Mr Robertson said in a statement issued late Thursday evening.
Mr Robertson’s organization leveled a list of accusations against RCAF, including involvement in illegal detentions, political violence, torture and summary executions.
US Embassy spokesman John Johnson wrote yesterday in an e-mail that, “As required by US law all participants in these exercises are thoroughly and rigorously vetted by the Embassy and the Departments of State and Defense.”
Mr Johnson said the speed with which Cambodia went from hosting UN troops to sending troops on peacekeeping missions was in part a testament to the government’s good relationship with the US.
HRW specifically cited negative reports involving an RCAF tank unit in Kompong Speu province.
In May, a $1.8 million US-funded peacekeeper training center, which will be used in the upcoming exercises, opened at ACO Tank Command Headquarters in Phnom Sruch district. In 2008, the US State Department reported that 40 soldiers used armored vehicles to destroy crops on land in the district that 25 families claimed to have lived on for 20 years.
RCAF National Tank Commander Lanh Kao said yesterday that HRW’s accusation that his unit grabbed land not only in Kompong Speu, but also in Banteay Meanchey province, was groundless.
“No RCAF or tank-unit soldiers have illegally seized land,” Commander Kao said. “To the contrary, some villagers have grabbed soldiers’ and the state’s land.”
In Thursday’s statement, Mr Robertson said technical expertise alone did not qualify soldiers for involvement in peacekeeping missions abroad. Cambodian peacekeepers currently working in Sudan and the Central African Republic belong to mine-clearance units. Another will be sent to Lebanon later this year, according to Council of Ministers Secretary of State Prak Sokhonn, who co-chairs the committee on peacekeeping operations.
When asked about the HRW statement, Mr Sokhonn said, “I don’t believe them,” then hung up his phone.
Defense Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat said the HRW statement was the latest in a series of poorly researched missives.
“I have heard what Human Rights Watch said, but we have no reports from the military or from people to suggest that any of it is true,” said Mr Socheat, adding: “This is normal for them.”
HRW previously criticized the US government for providing aid to RCAF despite what the rights organization alleges was the involvement of military personnel in the 1997 grenade attack on an SRP rally in Phnom Penh that killed 16 people. Earlier this year HRW said the US decision not to send Cambodia a shipment of trucks after the government deported 20 Uighur asylum seekers to China amounted to a “slap on the wrist.”
Reacting to HRW’s latest statement, Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said, “The only concern right now is that relations between Cambodia and the US remain good.”