Some news from Phnom Penh

patrickBy Patrick Reynaud

The first few weeks in Cambodia have been quite fascinating.

I am working at The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, known as LICADHO. This is one of the most prominent human rights NGOs in the country, founded in 1992 by Dr. Kek Galabru. LICADHO is very active on a varied number of fronts pertaining to the promotion and defense of human rights. Prominent issues recently have included abusive expropriations, also known as land grabs, performed by government authorities on behalf of business interests either closely linked or forming an integral part of the current governance structure. Significant and sometimes violent relocalizations of entire communities, without proper compensation, have abounded in recent years, both in Phnom Penh and the provinces. Another important area of activity for LICADHO of late concerns threats by government authorities against human rights defenders.

Unfortunately, community representatives, journalists, NGO members, monks and many other individuals who voice their opinion against the government on various issues, including land grabs, have found themselves imprisoned. Common charges include disinformation or incitement, which are criminal offenses and are used by public prosecutors in order to silence government critics, as well as political opposition. Sam Rainsy, leader of the opposition against the Cambodian People’s Party of longstanding Prime Minister Hun Sen, escaped abroad after being charged with destruction of property and incitement by the courts. Mu Suchua, another prominent opposition politician was recently charged with defamation against Hun Sen, for holding a press conference where she accused the Prime Minister of defamation. She has refused to pay the fine, and is likely to be imprisoned shortly for contempt of court.

These problems highlight what appears to be an endemic and recurring issue, namely the lack of a consistent rule of law in Cambodia. The executive branch seems to wield a heavy influence with the judiciary. Issues of impartiality and corruption unfortunately abound. The legislative structure is arguably in place to ensure respect for human rights and the democratic process. What lacks is an independent judicial authority to enforce laws.

For instance, judge Ney Thol, a longstanding President of the Military Court and member of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party Central Committee, is best known for presiding at two major trials where Prime Minister Hun Sen’s political opponents were convicted of national security related crimes. In 1998, he sentenced then opposition leader Norodom Rinariddh to 30 years imprisonment. Later, in 2005, he condemned opposition politician Cheam Channy to 7 years of detention. During this trial he barred defense lawyers from calling witnesses and interrupted their cross-examination of prosecution witnesses. Judge Ney Thol is now a member of the Extraordinary Chamber in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), an international tribunal responsible for trying former Khmer Rouge leaders involved in the genocide that occured in the late 1970s.

Although the most prominent cases include opposition politicians, many individuals critical to the current regime have unfortunately been condemned of or threatened with spurious legal charges. The most recent trend for intimidation involves the release of human rights defenders on bail. Pending charges will often not proceed to trial, but niether will they be dropped, to serve as a tool guaranteeing the good behavior of those released.

A recent personal experience highlighted issues pertaining to official authorities. I was unfortunately stopped by police on a Phnom Penh boulevard while riding my motorcycle. The policeman promptly demanded $50, while threatening to confiscate my vehicle and to bring me to the local police station. An interesting negotiation session ensued, whereby the informal payment was reduced to $5 for the multiple driving offenses I was ostensibly guilty of. The most effective way to avoid dealing with local authorities is to ignore their summons to pull over when apprehended; unfortunately the particular layout forced me to stop the vehicle. Police as civil servants are poorly and irregularly paid, and as a result most fines are informal payments meant to complement their income.

Another worrisome trend has been the Cambodian government’s repeated intention to pass a law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations, commonly known as NGO law. The official purpose of the law would be to curb crime and corruption on the part of NGOs, as well as to prevent terrorist activity, both of which are already dealt with under the penal code and anti-terrorist legislation. The law would most likely be used to restrict freedom of association by denying registration to NGOs critical of government policies.

Working at LICADHO has been quite interesting. My coworkers are warm and welcoming. I have travelled to the south and Sihanoukeville with some colleagues, as well as Kirirom National Park, as the motorcycle gives an easy opportunity to travel on week-ends. The country is quite beautiful, and I naturally look forward to visiting the north and Angkor Wat later in August.

About the pangs of development.

ludoLudovic Langlois-Therien

Après m’être relu, je ne peux que constater la maladresse, voire l’inexactitude des propos que je m’apprête à tenir. Néanmoins, il s’agit d’une réaction “à chaud”, écrite d’un seul jet, et j’ai tenu à la préserver ainsi.

In one of her posts, Kelly mentioned the frustration she felt about the very limited impact of community oriented NGOs, that it had been one of the reasons for her to pursue legal studies, to gain a more effective tool to help the people. Being currently an intern in the same NGO where Kelly once worked, I understand her frustration.

Since I have been here, I have not only witnessed the limited impact of community NGOs, but also of the general framework of human rights when applied to people that are so poor that they have trouble affording their bare necessities.

One aspect of my work consists of educating people in the slums about their tenure rights, about what they can do to be “in the law” and how they can have local recourses against the authorities that want to evict them. Walking in the slums and interviewing potential victims of forced evictions, I have come to realize that often, these people are fully conscious of their rights, of how they are currently trespassing the law; but also, how they did not give a damn about it because they had more urgent preoccupations, like finding food for their children. Before coming here, I knew the situation was not going to be all black or all white, but I would not have suspected to be in the position of sympathizing with the authorities, at least not in a strictly legal point of view.

It is true that the local law concerning tenure rights is not the most sensitive one (especially when you compare it to Quebec law…), but it is still far from what the “kafka-ian” nightmare that I had come to expect. For instance, people receive a “notice of eviction” one entire year before they are actually evicted. Given that they are occupying lands that aren’t theirs and the city need to urbanize new spaces for a growing population, one year seems a fair delay. In other words, I could not see the problem as a proper legal one.

When local law is deficient in terms of human rights, international law of human rights can be a useful joker, most notably for advocacy. But at its current stage in Africa, and when it is a question of social rights in a place as deprived as Cameroon, international law of human rights itself is a very limited tool. While social rights are not a “luxury” per se, they remain somewhat “utopist” when considered in a society that is struggling with corruption and tons of other pressing issues. In fact, most people here have no expectations from neither their government nor from the international order, they just do their best to live and improve their situation. “L’Afrique, c’est d’abord la débrouille”, as I have heard many say.

In this situation, I think that the main problem is not the law, nor its application, but the fact that slum dwellers first need a decent job. We are not talking big amounts of money, just enough resources to satisfy bare necessities. If that would happen, people would be able to cope more easily with their situation, like finding a new home in less than one year. In a place where institutions are so flawed, where the government is so corrupted, I have come to believe that social-economic self-determination is often the most efficient way to protect oneself.

In a bit less than two months of work, I have interacted with many NGOs and local UN departments. I have encountered so many gender/international development/social sciences students from all over the world (including Africa) doing every sort of morally valuable work you can think of that I could fill up many planes. While I highly regard all these efforts, I also wish there could be more business people with enough balls to invest here and employ local people.

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