Human Rights Are Complex but Vital for Powerless Cambodians

By Samir Pheng

Following the turmoil on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter in the aftermath of the Surya Subedi “ambush,” when students protested against the work of the U.N. human rights envoy to Cambodia, I can’ help but give my opinion as a fellow Cambodian. To some extent, I believe, human rights are a Western concept created by Westerners to ensure Western domination.

After World War II, the U.N. adopted human rights rhetoric and transformed it into a universal value imposable to every country in the world.

In developing countries, foreign aid is conditional on Western norms such as free speech, fair elections. In a sense, this notion has always been used by the West to impose its rule.

Nonetheless, Mr. Subedi’s recent report on human rights in Cambodia, and if we take into account recent events, resembles a poem of pastoral praise comparatively: elections are as chaotic as ever; the main opposition leader is exiled; our Prime Minister threatens so many people that I wonder if he will consider me as one of his enemies. Vote buying, fraud, ghost voters—these are all reminiscent of previous elections. One thing at least is certain: We all know who’s going to win. Hell, he even said it himself.

Now what does Mr. Subedi gain from submitting a report describing the horrendous human rights violations in Cambodia? Will he become famous and possibly get a promotion?

Maybe. But most people who work at the U.N. office don’t do it for a promotion or for the money, unless they have received bad advice.

But this is not the matter. For us however, a bad human rights report means a certain reticence by Western investments in Cambodia.

But, then again, thank god for the Chinese, they don’t seem to care much about human rights.

Therefore, his reports affect the general economy, particularly tourism, but also the government’s legitimacy, which is kind of important considering that Cambodia had always eyed a non-permanent seat at the U.N. Security Council.

From a more naive viewpoint, a bad report on human rights might also push the government to respect human rights which, let’s face it, are the rights of every human, meaning you, me and every Cambodian.

Now, such rights might not seem much to the protesting university students, who are clearly not affected by these issues. But these rights give other Cambodians, local farmers, small vendors and house owners a sense of reassurance of hope especially at a time when our own justice system is seriously in question.

To quote the words of a former president of France: “When people lose hope, anger will always find a way to express itself.”

Samir Pheng is a graduate student at Sciences Po Bordeaux, France.

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