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Cambodia and Vietnam defend their rights records

Human rights are ‘country-specific,’ says a Cambodian official at the UN Human Rights Council.

By Alex Willemyns for RFA

May 9, 2024

Credits @FFHR.CZ

Human rights are not universal and countries should be held to differing standards depending on their history, a Cambodian official told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on Wednesday, citing the Khmer Rouge’s brutal rule 45 years ago as a handicap to progress.

The official was speaking during the evaluation of Cambodia’s human rights record under the U.N. universal periodic review, to which all countries are subjected every five years. Neighboring Vietnam also defended its rights record before the council on Tuesday. 

Keo Sothie, a former public defender in the U.S. state of Colorado who now serves under his father Keo Remy as vice chair of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, said Cambodia was “once a wartorn country” and was ripped apart by the Khmer Rouge.

Any review of Cambodia “must therefore reflect on our past tragedy,” said Keo Sothie, a graduate of the University of Washington in Seattle and Northwestern University in Illinois who departed a role as a Colorado public defender in 2019 to return to Cambodia.

“Simply put, Cambodia went back to Year Zero,” he said of the Khmer Rouge’s 1975-1979 rule, explaining that it had “resulted in the total collapse of institutions and the loss of nearly 2 million people.”

Cambodia’s current government stems from the regime that replaced the Khmer Rouge in 1979 after Vietnam’s military ousted Pol Pot.

Keo Sothie added that the idea “there exists a universal panacea for all political, economic and social ills” or “a one-size-fits-all solution for all countries” was “impractical” given differences across countries.

“Democracy and human rights values are country-specific,” he said.

‘Single-party state’

Keo Sothie’s appeal for a more lenient review comes as the new government of Prime Minister Hun Manet – who last year took over power from his father Hun Sen after he had ruled the country for 38 years – faces a growing laundry list of criticisms of its record.

Since Cambodia’s last review before the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2019, the government for the second time in a row organized a national election from which the country’s main opposition party was banned. 

That facilitated the succession that led to 45-year-old West Point-educated Hun Manet taking over from his father last year as part of a nepotistic cross-government generational change that also saw the sons of the interior and defense ministers replace their fathers.

Cambodia has issued arrest warrants for opposition politicians and extended the home detention of opposition leader Kem Sokha, who was first arrested in 2017 on accusations of “treason” for allegedly working with the United States to unseat the government.

Other opposition politicians like Thach Setha, activists like Theary Seng and even independent workers’ union leaders like Chhim Sithar remain in prison on trumped-up charges, and other dissidents continue to face threats, intimidation and violent beatings.

In a statement ahead of the review process, Human Rights Watch slammed Cambodia’s government as having “failed to address” the recommendations made five years ago and said that, in fact, “the human rights situation in the country has worsened significantly.

“Since its last U.N. review in 2019, Cambodia has become further entrenched as an essentially single-party state without meaningful elections, no media freedom, and a ruling party-controlled judiciary,” said Bryony Lau, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. 

Close neighbors

Cambodia is one of 14 countries currently being reviewed.

Vietnam earlier appeared before the U.N. rights council for its evaluation on Tuesday, with anti-government protesters picketing the outside of the building in protest of an ongoing crackdown on government dissidents in Vietnam that appears to be growing.

During the session, the United States said it welcomed progress on “protecting the rights of LGBTQI+ persons” in Vietnam since 2019, but was concerned by the crackdown on freedom of expression.

In his remarks to the council, Deputy Foreign Minister Do Hung Viet said Hanoi worked steadfastly to implement recommendations made during the country’s last universal periodic review in 2019.

“For Vietnam, the UPR process goes beyond mere review and reporting responsibility,” Do Hung Viet said.

“Each review cycle is approached with a genuine desire to identify areas for improvement and to take concrete actions to translate recommendations into meaningful actions in people’s lives.”

The deputy foreign minister pointed to Vietnam’s economic growth since it implemented the Doi Moi market liberalization policies in the 1980s, which he said lifted millions of people out of crushing poverty and should be celebrated in itself as a victory for human rights.

Some 40 million people were no longer in poverty thanks to the policies, Do Hung Viet explained, noting that per-capita gross domestic product had risen “40-fold” between 1989 and 2023.

Lip service

Human rights activists told Radio Free Asia that Vietnam’s government had appeared to have perfect the art of paying lip service to human rights concerns while continuing to jail and harass those who openly criticize the government in the one-party state.

Hanoi seemed willing to ignore any outside criticism, safe in the knowledge that growing trade ties with countries like the United States will supersede any concerns about rights abuses, they said.

“This [indifference] can be attributed to the international community,” said Nguyen Van Dai, head of the Brotherhood for Democracy rights group and an observer at Vietnam’s evaluation on Tuesday.

“Over past years, they have still watched the human rights situations in Vietnam and spoken up, but have not taken any specific measures to sanction Vietnam if it runs counter to its international commitments or the international community’s recommendations,” he said.

But some protesters in Geneva still held out hope.

Tran Xa Rong, an Italy-based vice president of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Federation, which advocates for the persecuted ethnic Cambodian indigenous community in Southern Vietnam, said the review process was a chance to shine a spotlight on rights abuses.

“I hope free countries in the world will take measures to pressure the Vietnamese communist government to respect freedom, especially the human rights that it has committed to but not implemented,” he said.



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