The recent hearings by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the U. S. Congress on the situation in Cambodia got normal coverage in the Khmer papers, as well as in the Phnom Penh Post. Needless to say, it was reported on the Voice of America Khmer Service and got big play in the SRP-leaning Internet blog KI-Media. But in the U. S. this hearing was a non-story. No national paper found it newsworthy, not even the Washington Post, an article of which was quoted in the commission’s invitation, ran a story.
The big question now is whether the commission will take any action on the requests Ms. Mu Sochua made, and on the suggestions from Moeun Tola, head of the labor program unit of the CLEC, and Dr. Kek Galabru, president of Licadho. Just to be clear: commissions of the U. S. Congress don’t have any legislative powers. They hold hearings and normally issue a report, which may include recommendations and which is then passed on to the appropriate body in the U. S. Congress, or the President, or any other department in the administration. It would be up to any of these to initiate action on any recommendations. Don’t hold your breath for seeing anything along those lines in the near future as a result of that hearing. The Subcommittee On International Organizations, Human Rights, And Oversight is the one with legislative power. None of the commission members is a member of that committee. That is not to say that they are powerless. It’s just a little harder to get something tangible accomplished. A good example would be the 9/11-Commission that came up with a lot of recommendations, many of which were ignored by the Bush administration. Judging by the way this commission maintains its website, not much will happen here either. All members are active in other fields as well, and let’s face it, domestic issues by far outweigh such, for them esoteric, questions as the situation in Cambodia. After all, the U. S. maintains a well-staffed embassy there whose job it would be to point out the issues that need to be addressed by the State Department. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly bemoaned the fact that the donor countries pay only lip service to human rights issues in Cambodia.
According to a statement released by Ms. Mu Sochua, which I again gleaned from KI-Media, she met with Hillary Clinton and other administration officials and was promised a U. S. delegation would visit Cambodia on a fact-finding mission. Additionally, Hillary Clinton promised she would hand over a letter to the Cambodian Foreign Minister about certain conditions for continuing U. S. aid. Now this sounds more encouraging. I will be keen to learn what’s in this letter, if it ever gets published.
The important thing about this mission, as the participants and their followers will point out, is, of course, that it raised awareness of the human rights situation in Cambodia. And they will undoubtedly point to the statements made by the members of that commission.
Jim Moran, according to his words the initiator of the hearing made the following statements:
“If we are going to provide assistance, if we are going to raise the status of Prime Minister Hun Sen as one of the world’s leaders, then he needs to clean up the mess of his own country in terms of the judicial system.”
“If we don’t do anything and allow the opposition party to be repressed, if we allow the media to be silenced, if we allow the Cambodian people to lose their homes and be put out in the fields without any belongings, then we are complacent.”
“We bear responsibility if we allow that to happen and don’t speak up.” “The relationship [between the US and Cambodia] is not going to warm up until [Hun Sen] cleans this up, because as far as Congress is concerned, this is unacceptable.”
“Cambodia has made tremendous progress, but now it’s going back. It’s moving towards Burma instead of towards Indonesia. That’s unacceptable.”
“This is not about American interest. This is about human interest, human rights and the ability of the Cambodian people to express themselves freely, to move freely, to organize freely, and certainly to engage in a free and fair election, and that’s what we’re concerned about.”
“We want to give Hun Sen, the prime minister, every opportunity to correct the situation, to the change some of his policies.”
“Maybe he’s just getting bad advice and he can sack whatever minister is giving him that advice. We don’t want to suggest how he might want to deal with this, but things need to turn around, and I think that’s the point of this hearing. It is unacceptable what’s going on there.”
These are strong words. Would he be able to deliver?
Much more moderate was James McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, he is the co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. He said:
“My message is to stress that the United States wants a good relationship with Cambodia. We want a strong alliance with Cambodia, but human rights is an important issue, and there are some serious concerns about the human rights situation in Cambodia. And we will urge the Cambodian government to try to address them.”
“I want to make it clear that every single member of this committee will remain in contact with you, and we will follow closely with you what will happen to you when you go home, there should be no retribution for telling the truth.”
To ensure that the witnesses will be safe upon returning to Cambodia, Frank Wolf, the Republican co-chair of the Human Rights Commission, said he would write a letter to the US Embassy in Cambodia asking officials to keep a watchful eye on the returning witnesses.
He also said: “Speaking for myself if there is any harm or ill-will done to any of you, I personally will offer an amendment to cut aid across the board, zero doubt, military, non-military, everything, to Cambodia.”
This really sounds like posturing. He certainly pleased the witnesses. Obviously the U. S. has so far found it necessary to work with the Cambodian government in other fields and issues.
The lamest statement came from the State Department’s participant. He said about a tentative meeting between Hillary Clinton and Hor Nam Hong: “We are still working on when and where exactly, but certainly we want to keep that dialogue going.”
That meeting is to take place at the UN in New York City.
So how would you judge the outcome? It may be too early to tell but it sure sounded a lot like lip service on the commission’s part. For both Licadho and the Union representative it probably was a little discouraging. I would estimate that the Human Rights Watch director has no illusions about anything anyway, particularly governments. Probably only Ms. Mu Sochua left with a sense of accomplishment. This elevated her international stature one more notch and surely played well in front of her overseas Khmer supporters, who most likely bankrolled her tour. Did normal citizens except SRP followers in Cambodia itself pay any attention to this?
(All quotes taken from the VOA Khmer website.)