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Cambodia thirty years on: time for Australia to act again

Cambodia’s journey has been a long and harrowing one. Before the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements thirty years ago [today – 23 October], the country was on its knees — ravaged successively by massive US bombing, civil war, the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal reign of terror, invasion by the Vietnamese, and by civil war again. These onslaughts caused the deaths of some two million Cambodians and effectively destroyed the lives of many more.

The 1991 Paris accords did bring lasting peace to the country, and Australia can remain proud of the role we played in making that happen. We initiated the diplomatic strategy that, after many failed previous attempts, finally worked – essentially by defining an unprecedentedly hands-on role for the United Nations which gave China a face-saving way of withdrawing its support for the Khmer Rouge. And General John Sanderson’s leadership of the UNTAC military mission during the critical 1991-93 transition period was crucial to its success.

But, as I said when representing Australia at the Paris signing ceremony, ‘Peace and Freedom are not prizes, which, once gained, can never be lost. They must be won again each day. Their foundations must be sunk deep into the bedrock of political stability, economic prosperity and above all, the observance of human rights.’ Sadly, the truth of that observation has been borne out repeatedly over the last three decades. We brought peace to Cambodia, and with it some overdue national economic development. But as to democracy and human rights – the other two core elements of the Paris Agreements – the record has been one of dismal failure.

The rot set in early. The 1993 election was a brilliant success, with 90 per cent turnout. It was an incredibly moving experience to watch those voters and their families lined up for hours at polling stations knowing the high risk of bomb attacks, but with so much joyful confidence in the future. But it did not result in the expected win for Hun Sen, the incumbent leader who had fought the Khmer Rouge. He refused to accept the result, and the international community – far too meekly, in retrospect – allowed him to become joint prime minister. It was the last fully free and fair election Cambodia was to hold.

Clever and utterly ruthless, in a short time Hun Sen had vanquished his opponents and taken steps to ensure no opposition party could meaningfully contest his leadership. His Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) became synonymous with corruption, land evictions, control of the judiciary and army, political repression, wide scale arrests and imprisonment, physical threats to those protesting the loss of human rights, and on occasion outright murder.

Over thirty years, moreover he has amassed vast fortunes for his family, including by siphoning off many millions of dollars in aid contributed by the West – while almost 30 per cent of Cambodians live barely above the poverty line, and a great many more survive on no more than around $3 a day, with Covid-19 adding immensely to economic as well as social distress. The World Bank ranks Cambodia’s control of corruption as in the lowest 10 per cent in the world.

It seemed for a time that Hun Sen’s authoritarianism might have run its course. In 2012 a wave of serious organised opposition began to develop, and the main opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), almost won the 2013 election. But this was not an opportunity that Hun Sen would allow to be repeated. Repression intensified on multiple fronts, and with the 2018 general election looming, in late 2017 Hun Sen arrested the Opposition CNRP leader, Kem Sokha, charged him with treason, and disbanded his party altogether. Thousands fled overseas. There are no fig-leaves left: Cambodia cannot now be described as anything other than a dictatorship.

Despite the efforts of successive UN rapporteurs on human rights in Cambodia, appointed pursuant to the Paris Peace Agreements and starting with Australia’s own Michael Kirby, it has been hard to energise the Human Rights Council or any other international body to take effective action. Partly that has been a product of the protection routinely given Hun Sen’s government by China. By far Cambodia’s biggest investor and creditor, Beijing treats it for all practical purposes as a wholly owned subsidiary.

Despite periodic calls from activists for the reconvening of the Paris International Conference on Cambodia, as provided for in the 1991 Agreements, there is no evident support for this from any of the Permanent Five Security Council members or other key participants, all of whom have multiple other current distractions. And the strongest steps it could take if it did meet again would be to refer human rights concerns to ‘the competent organs of the United Nations’ – back, in other words, to the essentially impotent Human Rights Council.

The greatest hope for Cambodia’s future lies with its people, who have shown in the past extraordinary pride, courage and resilience, and – whenever they have have had the chance – that they want above all the restoration of decent governance. With a median age of twenty-five, its population the youngest of any South East Asian country, the country has wonderful potential. And younger generation leaders have continued to struggle, against almost impossible odds, to keep the flames of justice alight.

What they need is external support, not just in the form of sympathetic resolutions from multilateral forums, but hard practical measures from individual countries that can put real pressure on Hun Sen and those around him to modify their behaviour. This means in particular, in the context of the next general election in 2023, pressure to reverse the ban on the main opposition party and enable the genuine exercise of universal civil and political rights across the whole community.

Targeted individual sanctions against key regime members and their families – basically asset freezes and other financial restrictions, and visa bans – are the most useful forms of such pressure. After dragging its feet for years, the Australian Government at last announced in August its intention to enact a ‘Magnitsky Act’ to make easier the application of such sanctions in human rights cases – following US, UK and Canada legislation so named to honour the Russian dissident tortured and killed after exposing government corruption. It may be a triumph of hope over experience to believe that this will be passed any time soon, or applied with any vigour when it is. But when it is operational, the Hun Sen government should be one of its first targets.

Australia has been a world-leader in the past in supporting the Cambodian people in their yearning for life and liberty. With their basic rights and freedoms now more imperilled than they have been since the end of the Khmer Rouge genocide, it is time for our voice to be once again strongly heard.

Gareth Evans was Australia’s Foreign Minister 1988-96.

This article was originally published in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald on 23 October 2021.