Human Rights and the Rule of
Law in Cambodia
Not too long ago, I had the opportunity to visit Cambodia and I am convinced that no person of conscience could walk away from the experience without wanting to lend helping hand. There is not individual now living in Cambodia who has not in some way been impacted by the atrocities crimes against humanity committed by the communist movement known as the Khmer Rouge which ruled Cambodia from 1975-1979.
Led by Pol Pot also known as Brother number one, the Khmer Rouge was one of the most brutal regimes of the 20th century. Responsible for the death of an estimated 1.7 million people out of a population of only about 7.5 million, its heartless motto was “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.”
While we could debate, like historians are now doing, whether or not the U.S. bombing campaign from 1965-1973 and the suspension of U.S. aid to Cambodia in 1973 led to Pol Pot’s rise, and while we can take issue with current problem associated with Cambodia’s developing government, I would like to put politics aside and focus on how we might be of assistance to our brothers and sisters in Cambodia who have suffered enough.
I don’t 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. I also do not believe that any Commission should usurp the role of U.S. Department of State or the diplomatic relation we have established between our two countries. While we expect a Commission to invite NGOs and other interested parties to testify, in assistance where we have established diplomatic ties, I believe the Commission crosses the line when it extends invitations to active Members of Parliament, and even more so invitations are extended to one political party and not other. Although it may be the prerogative of a Commission to operate however it wishes, it does not make good policy to operate from a premise of bias when dealing with foreign government with which we have diplomatic ties.
Having known the late Tom Lantos, I do not believe he would approve of the way this hearing has come about. Tom Lantos was a just man, a pioneer of human rights who believed in engagement. As a case in point, he visited North Korea on three occasions in an effort to bring about peace through dialogue. In every hearing he held as Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, he made sure that both sides of any issue were fully represented.
The co-chairs and members of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission are also honorable men who I know to be just and sincere. I am certain that they, too, would have preferred that the staff responsible for putting the witness list together for this hearing had notified the Royal Government of Cambodia in advance and asked for its participation and input. This was not done, and I could only conclude that this was a staff oversight, and not the intent or desire of the Commission.
While the Commission is under no obligation to consult with House Subcommittees that share jurisdiction on these issues, I was disappointed that as a matter of professional courtesy that Commission staff did not reach out to the Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and the Global Environment either. Ambassador Hem Heng of Cambodia did contact my office to express his deep concerns and, for the record, I am submitting his government’s response as well as his letter to me dated 9-9-09.
I also asked the Commission to include him as a witness but, upon further thought and consideration, knowing that he would not be afforded the same time to prepare testimony as the opposition had been given, I withdraw my request. In the interim, one day before the hearing, Ambassador Heng received an email from Commission staff that the “Witness panel is full” but the Commission “would be happy to organize a staff level meeting with representatives from the Cambodian government at a later date and time convenient for you.”
In my opinion, such a response falls short of dealing fairly with any government with which we have diplomatic ties and thus includes the Royal Government of Cambodia. Like Ambassador Heng, I am certain that the Government of Cambodia would not sanction a hearing in its country that allowed Members of the U.S. 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. Offering one political party of a foreign government with which we have diplomatic ties the right to testify before the Commission while offering the other party only an opportunity to meet at staff level is not the way the late Tom Lantos would want things done nor is it how the Obama Administration would have us remake U.S. foreign policy. Given the implications this kind of bias might have for U.S. relation abroad, I am hopeful that we might rethink our approach.
I commend the co-chairs of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and also Congressman Jim Moran for their sincere efforts to help our brother and sisters in Cambodia. I know that Congressman Moran has personally met with Ambassador Heng on a number of occasions to discuss the very issues before the Commission today. Like Congressman Moran, I know that Cambodia has a long way to go but, I also know that Cambodia has little infrastructure left to address the serious challenges it faces. Cambodia needs our support, not our criticism.
According to His Excellency Cham Prasidh, Cambodia’s Minister of Commerce, who lost both parents to the Khmer Rouge, only 69 intellectuals survived this genocide. From ashes, Cambodia has been forced to rebuild, and has looked to anyone to help. In my discussions with Minister Prasidh, I was particularly struck by his word when he said, “When you are drowning, you do not care about the color of the band that is saving you.”
These days, China is the one of the largest sources of foreign assistance to Cambodia lending a hand of $8oo million in aid and loans in 2006-2007. The United States provided a little over $100 million in the same time period. What does this kind of disparity in support mean for U.S. security interests in the region?
As I have said many times before, I do not believe the U.S. gives the Asia-Pacific region the attention it deserves, and by our failure to assist Cambodia when it needs us most, we are unintentionally inviting Cambodia to partner with others who may not share our ideologies, and this does not bode well for U.S. security interests in the region now or later.
Knowing Cambodia’s history and our role in that history, I am hopeful that we can do better. I applaud the Obama Administration’s commitment to strengthening U.S.-Cambodia trade ties, and I commend the Bush Administration for lifting a ten-year ban on direct bilateral aid to Cambodia in February of 2007. As we now move to address human rights, we would do well to remember that Cambodia is a nation struggling to get back on its feet, and it needs us to extend a hand, not a clenched fist. In extending a hand, it is my firm belief that we need to work with both the ruling and opposition parties if our end goal is to bring about change. One without the other will only serve to undermine our bilateral relations and security interests.