Just Keep Swimming

By André Capretti

In the past few months, Cambodian civil society has made concerted efforts to lobby foreign governments who are among Cambodia’s biggest aid donors, in the hopes of pressuring the government to cease violating human rights and making a mockery of the justice system. By using aid money as leverage, foreign governments can advocate for improvements in the State’s treatment of its citizens and for the respect of fundamental freedoms and civil liberties.

However, for a long time embassies in Phnom Penh were disturbingly quiet about the politically motivated repression of the State’s most ardent critics and high-profile opponents. While activists, opposition politicians and human rights defenders were being thrown into prison one after the other, far too many foreign delegations limited their statements to “expressions of deep concern”. “Concern”, no matter how deep or heartfelt it may be, is not an effective tool for bringing about serious change in the ruthless Cambodian political landscape. It is even less appropriate from actors like the United States EmbassyUN Secretary-General Ban-ki Moon, or the European Union delegation, who have the gravitas and influence necessary to make a difference through their words and actions.

So when the European Parliament voted for a resolution on June 9, which called for the body’s 410 million€ of aid to be made conditional on improvements in Cambodia’s human rights situation, there seemed to be signs for potential rejoicing. And yet the Cambodian government’s response to the EU’s diplomatic move was harsh and dismissive. Prime Minister Hun Sen made a speech in which he stated, “China has never made a threat to Cambodia and has never ordered Cambodia to do something…You threaten to cut off aid; please cut it and the first person who will suffer will be the people who work with NGOs.”

These comments present two worrisome issues. Firstly, what to do when countries like China, who have no qualms about less than stellar human rights records, present themselves as aid partners for developing countries, making withholding aid no longer a viable means of affecting change? Secondly, what to do when a government calls your bluff and appears to relish the possibility of cutting off money from NGOs?

The government of Cambodia has long prioritized economic development and security at the expense of democracy and human rights, without acknowledging that those do not have to be mutually exclusive goals. Cambodia’s recent response to the threats made by the EU is alarming, as it demonstrates that they are not afraid to expand the chasm between development and human rights even further.

Here’s an interesting Op-Ed from the New York Times on the role of human rights in the World Bank’s development policies.

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            Lorsque je lis les nouvelles cambodgiennes sur les réseaux sociaux, il m’arrive parfois de me demander si l’article que je lis est une parodie ou un article sérieux. L’absurdité des propos des membres du gouvernement dans leurs entrevues et dans leurs déclarations aux médias rend la tâche particulièrement difficile.

Prenons par exemple le vidéo intitulé « Using Rights in Anarchic Way », produit récemment par le gouvernement. Dans ce vidéo, le gouvernement avertit les cambodgiens que si ils utilisent leurs droits « de la mauvaise façon », ils risquent de reproduire les mêmes sortes de guerres civiles qu’ont vécues la Libye et la Syrie, après que le peuple s’est opposé au gouvernement. Sans aucun signe d’ironie, le narrateur raconte que l’usage excessif des droits amènera la destruction, des familles éclatées, la perte d’une centaine de milliers de vies et d’habitats, et le carnage. Le narrateur conclut qu’après toutes ces horreurs, il ne restera que des souvenirs douloureux.

Le message transmis au public par le gouvernement dans ce vidéo est clair. Arrêtez donc de manifester, de vous exprimer, de vous plaindre contre la corruption, la répression de l’État, l’abus du système judiciaire et l’harcèlement de la société civile. Si vous ne restez pas en silence, on n’hésitera pas à utiliser la violence et la brutalité pour vous écraser, comme ils ont fait en Syrie et en Libye. Il est encore plus difficile de croire que l’organe du gouvernement qui a publié la vidéo est le Cambodian Human Rights Committee, un organe qui est censé promouvoir les droits humains !

En bref c’est ça la situation des droits humains au Cambodge : la ligne entre la réalité et l’absurde est floue. C’est un pays où le ministre de la défense menace d’emprisonner les gens s’ils manifestent pacifiquement sans demander de permission. Un pays où le passetemps préféré du premier ministre semble être de faire taire ses adversaires et ses critiques avec des poursuites en diffamation. Un pays où le gouvernement déclare que les manifestants doivent demander la permission du gouvernement pour s’exprimer sur les réseaux sociaux. Un pays où le double standard entre les partis critiques du gouvernement et les amis proches du régime est flagrant et injuste. Pendant que le chef député de l’opposition fait face à des chefs d’accusions banals motivés par des intérêts politiques, des haut placés dans le gouvernement sont protégés des regards du tribunal chargé de réprimer les crimes de l’ère des Khmers rouges. Ce type d’impunité est tout simplement inacceptable pour un pays qui prétend respecter les droits humains et la justice.

            Ce qui est le plus absurde dans tout ça c’est de voir comment le droit, le système de justice et le discours des droits humains peuvent être maniés d’une façon aussi grotesque, par un gouvernement qui a si peu de respect pour son peuple.

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            Last summer I followed with great interest Brodie Noga’s blogs, where he recounted his experiences as an intern with LICADHO. In particular, one of his blogs caught my attention, and left a lasting impression in my mind: Monitoring a Trial for Insurrection.  

Recently, I had the chance to witness the second act of this case, as three members of the youth wing of the opposition political party were being put on trial for the same events as their predecessors, accused of leading and participating in an insurrection, for their actions in a 2014 peaceful protest turned violent.

What I witnessed during the two hearings I attended was a shocking display of political theatre. The judge made no effort to conceal that the defendants’ presumption of innocence had been replaced with a presumption of guilt. One of the defendants, Yea Thong, provided compelling testimony which indicated that he had very likely been at the wrong place at the wrong time, and possibly the victim of a case of mistaken identity. Yet the judge made absolutely no effort to probe his claims further, making it clear that the defendants’ guilt had been predetermined.

What was most appalling was the ridiculous case presented by the prosecutor, who brought forth no evidence to corroborate the allegations and barred the defence from calling on key witnesses for additional questioning. The prosecutor made the absurd argument that although the defendants’ actions did not involve the constituting acts of the offence of insurrection, their arrests and prosecutions were justified on the grounds that this offence had to be dealt with pre-emptively.

I felt confident that there was no way a reasonable judge would convict the three men of any crime, much less a crime like insurrection which carries a sentence ranging from seven to 15 years of imprisonment. I soon learned that was naïve of me.

On the day the verdict was handed down, I observed a similar scene to that which Brodie had witnessed a year prior. While waiting for the judges to show up, the three defendants smiled and laughed with their family members in the audience. My eyes lingered on Yea Thong, the defendant whose testimony I had heard and who I was convinced was completely innocent. He seemed relaxed and unworried, laughing along with his fellow defendants. He even gave a reassuring wink to his wife, sitting two rows behind him, as if to say, “Don’t worry honey, this will all be over soon enough”.

And then the judge entered the chambers. Immediately the mood in the room changed. The tension was palpable as the judge began to rattle off the charges and read out the verdicts. My Khmer colleague whispered in my ear, “7 years. All three of them”. My heart sank. I looked over to the defendants, to Yea Thong in particular. From behind I could see that his hands had begun to shake. And then his arms began to tremble as well. As the prison guards took away the three –now convicted – men, their families started to shout and scream, many of them in tears.

In that moment, I was dumbfounded by the verdict. That feeling would slowly be replaced in equal parts by feelings of fury and sorrow. Yea Thong later denounced his verdict, noting that “[n]othing about this is remarkable because the courts in Cambodia are not fair to people.” His wife would go on to add that “[t]here is no justice, brother, because my husband did not do anything wrong. Courts in Cambodia are not fair for the powerless people.”

I didn’t have much time to recover from that disturbing scene before we zoomed off on a tuk-tuk to the Appeals Court. Once there, we waited to hear whether the five human rights defenders who had been in pre-trial detention since May 2 would have their requests for bail allowed. Once again, being a young, naïve and idealistic law student, I thought they might actually be granted bail. Under the law, they certainly qualified for it. Yet as I had just seen in the insurrection case, and as my colleagues had repeatedly reminded me, the law was not a prime consideration in cases like these. Inexplicably, the five were denied bail by the court, which tried providing some semblance of a justification for its decision to mask the clear political motivations behind the case. With a heavy heart, I headed home. In one day I had had a front row seat to two major injustices perpetrated by Cambodia’s justice system. I am beginning to realize that the struggles of human rights work can erode even the most hardened layers of optimism and idealism.

Advocacy material for the Black Monday campaign
Advocacy material for the Black Monday campaign
The beach on Rabbit Island near Kep
The beach on Rabbit Island near Kep

 

Luckily, the LICADHO team held its annual staff retreat soon after in the seaside town of Kep. The idyllic locale, with the calming smell and sound of the ocean, did wonders for my morale. The time spent together, laughing, sharing meals, playing games, lifted everyone’s spirits. It was much needed. No matter how demoralizing, disheartening or depressing human rights work can be, it is far too valuable to ever give up. While we may sometimes lose hope, I was reminded of an important lesson when I recently went to the movie theatres to see Finding Dory.

When life gets you down, you know what you gotta do?

Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming. What do we do? We swim, swim.  

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