There’s a lot of hand-wringing in New York right now about what the United Nations should do to stop brutal, state-looting dictators. A good place to start would be not to consider them as candidates for a seat on the Security Council.
On Thursday, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen will find out if his country has won the Council’s Asia-Pacific seat. Cambodia is unlikely to beat South Korea’s bid, but it shouldn’t be in the running at all.
Cambodia is in the grip of an unprecedented land-grabbing crisis as an increasingly confident and insatiable elite helps itself to pretty much any natural resource it wants, ignoring its own laws and bulldozing local communities and dissenters out of the way. The Security Council ought to be focusing on tackling these issues, not giving the government a chance at a seat at the highest table in international decision-making.
Sadly, such tacit support is not new. For decades, Cambodia’s allies have turned a blind eye to the systematic stripping of the country’s rich natural heritage and the violence that comes with it.
In 1998, I was the European Union’s special representative to the Cambodian national elections. Hun Sen had just consolidated power in a bloody coup, exiling his co-prime minister and executing at least 100 other opponents. He was duly re-elected amid talk of reform and prosperity for Cambodia’s long-suffering population. A boom was indeed possible — Cambodia is richly blessed with minerals, timber, land and oil. But progress would have required a government committed to the interests of its people. Hun Sen and his cronies were manifestly not that government; but the world bought into the myth, funneling in billions of aid dollars over the next 15 years.
The social and environmental catastrophe that followed was predictable. More than two million hectares of land has been transferred to industrial agricultural companies, mostly from small farmers. Communities are rarely consulted or compensated when their land is turned into huge plantations for export crops like rubber or sugar, and deforestation rates continue to be some of the highest in the region. Half the national budget still comes from aid, yet donors, some of the most important of whom sit on the Security Council, have consistently failed to ask what is happening to the resource wealth that should go to building the schools and hospitals.
Next month, the contrast between this grim reality and the government’s image abroad will become even more stark, as world leaders arrive in Phnom Penh for the East Asia Summit. Hundreds of families face eviction to ensure that the airport can be extended and the red carpet fully rolled out for delegates, including President Obama.
When asked about the evictions, which locals say they will resist, the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh commented “these are Cambodian government actions they are taking. It’s not just President Obama coming.”
As such “government actions” have intensified, so has the crackdown against those who speak out against them. The shooting of a 14-year-old girl during a forced eviction in May 2012 came just three weeks after the murder by armed forces of the prominent anti-logging activist Chut Wutty. Last month, the journalist Hang Serei Oudom was found in the back of a car with an axe in his head — he’d been investigating timber cartels in the northeast.
Beatings and intimidation of activists and ordinary citizens are rife, while the courts seem willing to lock up whomever the regime and its associates tell them to. Two weeks ago the investigation into Wutty’s murder was dropped and the regime critic and radio broadcaster Mam Sonando was jailed for 20 years on trumped up charges of inciting rebellion.
It is tempting to describe what is happening as a descent into chaos. It is not chaos: It’s the systematic capture of the state and its resources and the elimination of free speech by a profoundly corrupt regime, and it can be stopped. Global Witness, an NGO that works to expose the corrupt exploitation of natural resources, has long argued that donor countries could do more to pressure Phnom Penh to implement promised reforms and stop ignoring its own laws. Such a change would be good for business too — investors increasingly express concern about the risk of being associated with corruption and human rights abuses in the country.
Cambodia’s future won’t turn on its candidacy for the Security Council, or foreign announcements about the East Asia Summit — its problems run deeper than that. But the world has consistently failed to speak up for Cambodia’s people, and this silence has been crucial in sealing their current fate.
Rather than standing by as Cambodia looks for new ways to secure a veneer of respectability on the world stage, the United Nations and member states who provide the country with aid must start asking the hard questions about what the Cambodian government is up to in its own beautiful, resource-rich back yard.
Baroness Glenys Kinnock is a member of the House of Lords and of the Global Witness Advisory Board.