washington – More than 100 members of the public on Thursday squeezed themselves into an overcrowded hearing room, lining the walls one to two people deep in order to hear Cambodian witnesses testify before a Congressional commission on human rights.
The appearances before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission by SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua, Kek Pung, president of the Cambodian human rights group Licadho, and Moeun Tola, head of the labor program for the Community Legal Education Center, were organized to address three key issues: the country’s failure to implement the 2001 Land Law and the ensuing plague of land grabbing; the rash of government lawsuits against its critics, and labor rights.
Sophie Richardson, Asia Advocacy Director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, also joined the Cambodian panel.
The commission is a committee of lawmakers in the House of Representatives, which is the lower chamber of the US legislature.
Each witness provided specific areas of discussion, but all came back to a key theme: how human rights are being trampled through a seriously flawed court system that does not protect them. Such abuses included the eviction of citizens from their homes, the denial of labor rights and the fact that union leaders, activists and journalists are punished, undermined and sometimes killed, the witnesses said.
Ms Sochua did not take long to get to the point of her visit: “We need to crack the facade of democracy in Cambodia” she said.
The opposition party lawmaker told the commission that Cambodia is ruled by a single party and that reports from human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and even the World Bank and the European Union, have enumerated an “alarming situation of violation of human rights and corruption,” but have not made a dent in the way the government treats the public.
Taking up the plight of the displaced, Licadho’s Kek Pung relayed stories of displacement and trauma in which government agents destroyed people’s homes during evictions. Such actions, aside from triggering immediate crisis for the displaced, Ms Pung noted, have a broader effect: they leave members of a largely agricultural community without homes, without income and with no way to fend for themselves. The evicted, she said, are often then arrested when they attempt to protest.
“So the victim is victimized twice,” she told the commission.
Cambodia’s Land Law of 2001 was enacted to create a systematic assignment of land to families and individuals, in an attempt to unwind the destruction of land ownership and private property during the Khmer Rouge regime. Over the course of her testimony, Ms Pung made clear, however, that the law is futile if it is not meaningfully applied.
Addressing the commission on labor rights, Mr Tola also said Cambodia’s labor laws are sometimes undermined, in particular during the intimidation of unions and undermining of garment workers’ ability to negotiate raises.
Mr Tola said a common method was simple: employers give workers contracts as short as one or two months—should they join a union, they will not be rehired. Even employment contracts as long as 18 months can keep workers at a single salary, preventing them from earning raises over time.
Mr Tola said such contracts deliberately fall short of the length of time that would legally require that an individual receive a raise.
Abuses of the present, however, were not the only focus.
In her testimony, Ms Richardson, of Human Rights Watch, pointed out that members of Cambodia’s military, to which the US government provides funds, includes members with “appalling” track records with reference to human rights issues.
In a dialogue with Congressman Jim Moran, a member of the governing Democratic Party from the state of Virginia, Ms Richardson said former members of the Khmer Rouge are members of the current military. She said her group does not oppose US financial support of the Cambodian military but she said that the people it is supporting need to come under greater scrutiny.
“All of these problems are really a function of impunity in Cambodia and few are ever prosecuted with the exception of Mu Sochua,” Richardson said, referring to Ms Sochua’s recent conviction for defamation, a direct result of her lawsuit against Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Ms Richardson also noted that waiting for a new Cambodian government to make changes is not an option: she noted that Mr Hun Sen is not old, meaning the problems her organization sees now are ones Cambodia will continue to face for the foreseeable future.
Commission co-chairman Frank Wolf, a member of the minority Republican Party also from Virginia, likened the situation Ms Richardson described to that of East Timor, where the US neglected to vet the military forces it was supporting.
Mr Wolf said he would write to US Defense Secretary Robert Gates to make it a priority for the US defense attache in Phnom Penh, a position currently held by Colonel Frank Matheson, to make human rights a consideration in dealing with the Cambodian military.
Following Mr Hun Sen’s violent ouster of then first Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh in 1997, US lawmakers imposed a ban on all direct assistance to the Cambodian government and instructed all US representatives to international financial institutions to oppose direct financial assistance to the Cambodian government.
The ban, which lasted a decade, was tied to US government reporting on progress on human rights, elections and environmental protection. Current Congressional restrictions also bar US military assistance to any foreign military unit suspected of involvement human rights violations.
But along with discussions about tying US trade agreements to labor standards in Cambodia and holding military members accountable for rights abuses, an additional question arose: if China is Cambodia’s biggest trading partner, can comparatively smaller trading partners, such as the US, have an effect by making human rights a part of their trade agreements with Cambodia?
Ms Pung said even “no-strings-attached” trading partners, like China, may have unspoken conditions, such as access to mines, forests or other resources. Additionally, Ms Kek, like Ms Sochua, said that trading partners with overt demands such as human rights can make a difference.
“I urge the US to join its voice with other donors,” she said, referring to the European Union and other international contributors of assistance to Cambodia.
Ms Tola agreed that linking trade and human rights can work, even with China’s heft in the background: “Most of the product from the textile and garment industry is imported to the United States and European Union. It’s not through China.”
The Cambodian Embassy in Washington, aware of Thursday’s commission hearing, produced a written statement before testimony began. The Embassy’s statement said the country is a democracy and is committed to human rights. With regard to defamation of the government and its members, the embassy said Cambodia, like all democracies, has a right to defend itself from defamation and disinformation.
“The sentences handed down by the court are aimed at protecting individual rights, as well as the security and stability of the country” the embassy said, and noted the verdict in Ms Sochua’s case was in compliance with existing laws.
Each of the congressmen present on Thursday voiced thanks and concern to for the safety of Ms Sochua, Ms Pung and Mr Tola.
At the session’s opening, Congressman James McGovern, a Democrat from the US state of Massachusetts, said “there should be no retribution for telling the truth. We invited you here, we want you here…. we are going to follow very closely what happens when you return.”
Mr Wolf reinforced this, saying the US Embassy in Cambodia was going to check in on each of the witnesses and will let the Cambodian government know “your security is very, very important to our government.”
In a letter to the commission dated Thursday, Democrat Eni Faleomavaega, chairman of the House subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific and the non-voting delegate to House of Representatives from the outlying US territory of American Samoa, chastised the Tom Lantos commission for failing including the Cambodian government at Thursday’s hearing.
“I do not believe that holding a hearing that gives voice to the opposition party and excludes the ruling party is the way for us to proceed in affecting change in Cambodia,” Mr Faleomavaega wrote.
“I am certain that the Government of Cambodia would not sanction a hearing it its country that allowed members of the US Congress to testify against our own Administration and I believe when dealing with the developing world, we should not be so arrogant as to treat other governments any differently than we would like to be treated,” he wrote.
“Cambodia needs our support, not our criticism,” he added.