US-based rights monitor Human Rights Watch has blasted the US departments of Defense and State for co-hosting a multinational peacekeeping event with RCAF, saying the US has subverted their efforts to promote human rights in Cambodia.
The “Angkor Sentinel 10” military exercise -which will begin on 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 have included Indonesia, Mongolia and Bangladesh, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said that 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 laundry list of other accusations against the RCAF, including involvement in illegal detentions, political violence, torture and summary executions.
US embassy spokesman John Johnson wrote Friday 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 added that the speed with which Cambodia went from being occupied by UN troops to sending troops on peacekeeping missions was in part a testament to the government’s good relationship with the US.
The Human Rights Watch statement specifically pointed to negative reports involving an RCAF tank unit in Kompong Speu province.
In May, a $1.8 million US-funded peacekeeper training center that will be used for the upcoming exercises opened at the ACO Tank Command Headquarters in Phnom Sruch district, where, in 2008, the US State Department’s human rights bureau reported that 40 soldiers used armored vehicles to destroy crops on land 25 families claimed to have lived on for 20 years.
RCAF National Tank Commander Lanh Kao said Friday that Human Rights Watch’s accusation that his unit grabbed land not only in Kompong Speu, but also in Banteay Meanchey province, was completely ungrounded.
“No RCAF or tank unit soldiers have illegally seized land for their own interests,” said Commander Kao. “To the contrary, some villagers have grabbed soldiers’ and the state’s land.”
In Thursday’s statement, Mr Robertson stated that technical expertise was not qualification enough for soldiers involved in peacekeeping missions abroad. Cambodia’s peacekeeping troops currently working in the Sudan and the Central African Republic belong to mine clearance units, another of which 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 Human Rights Watch statement, Mr Sokhonn said, “I don’t believe them,” then hung up his phone.
Defense Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat said that the Human Rights Watch 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.”
Human Rights Watch previously criticized the US government for providing aid to the RCAF despite what the organization alleges was the involvement of military personal in the 1997 grenade attack on an SRP rally in Phnom Penh that left 16 people dead. Earlier this year the organization said the US decision not to send Cambodia a shipment trucks after the government deported 20 Uighur asylum seekers to China amounted to a “slap on the wrist.”
Reacting to the rights group’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.”