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Human Rights and Democracy in Cambodia

Human Rights and Democracy in Cambodia

Joseph A. Mussomeli, U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia
Remarks at the University of Cambodia
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
February 10, 2006

Good evening. I am delighted to have this chance to talk to you today about human rights and democracy in Cambodia. What perfect timing for such a speech, with all the mostly good news lately about political reconciliation among your leaders. Even before beginning my speech I would like to commend them all -- the Prime Minister, Prince Ranaridh, Sam Rainsy, and leaders of civil society, for their efforts over the last few weeks.

I begin my talk with a certain degree of caution, knowing that I am only a guest in your country. I also begin my talk with a certain degree of humility, believing that Cambodians themselves are the best protectors of their democracy. As Prime Minister Hun Sen said very recently, it is best for Cambodians together to resolve their differences. I can think of no better foundation for the flowering of greater freedom and democracy in Cambodia.

Over the past quarter-century a profound democratic revolution has reshaped the world political order. Democracy, human rights, religious freedom, and worker rights have led to a freer, and more stable and prosperous world. Often these values are too-closely associated with America, but freedom and human rights are not uniquely American concepts. We have no monopoly on these values; we have no copyright. They are universal values -- in fact, values is perhaps the wrong term. Freedom and human rights are not so much values, as yearnings. All people yearn for freedom, and dignity, and justice.

As you are all well aware, there has been much concern over the status of democracy and human rights in Cambodia this past year, and the U.S. and many other members of the international community have voiced their concerns. But our voiced concern does not conflict at all with those who insist that Cambodia's political evolution is rightly and primarily a Cambodia matter that should be directed by the Cambodian people.

The role of the international community is subordinate to and largely dependent upon the will of the Cambodian people. And often the role of the international community is exaggerated or misunderstood. There are too often calls for the international community to "pressure" the government to do one thing or another. But pressure can sometimes be counterproductive and international interference is often unwelcome. Cambodia is a sovereign state, it has democratic mechanisms in place, and to the extent it can, it should strive to solve its internal affairs independently and responsibly.

Nonetheless, Cambodia is unique. In 1991 Cambodia was, in a sense, re-created from the ashes of two decades of civil war and a horrendous genocide. The international community, and especially the Paris Accords signatories, including the United States, were deeply involved in that re-creation and have special legal obligations to Cambodia. Paragraph 12 of the Final Act states:

"Above all, the States participating in the Conference commit themselves to promote and encourage respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cambodia."

There is no expiration date on the Paris Accords. The commitment to support human rights that the 18 nations signatory to the Accords undertook in 1991 is still valid. The United States as a signatory has an obligation, a commitment to the Cambodian people to "promote and encourage" human rights. We cannot escape this obligation nor do we want to.

With good reason most people believe the Paris Accords were a success. A durable comprehensive settlement was achieved after over 20 years of bloodshed. All parties agreed that the means to achieve a broad reconciliation would be respect for human rights and democratic elections. This was a risky experiment, as Cambodia had only scant democratic experience and few institutions to support human rights. But looking back it is genuinely remarkable how far Cambodia has come in so short a period. People, especially foreigners, too often forget that Cambodia's democracy is still in its adolescence. It is barely 15 years old. And considering its age, it has achieved a great deal that all Cambodians ought to take pride in.

But it is also clear that Cambodia's democracy remains unfinished. No one should expect a 15-year old to be a full-fledged, mature, experienced adult. After all, after more than 200 years of growth, even American democracy sometimes appears still in its adolescence. In truth, for every country, but especially for newly-formed democracies like Cambodia, the work of protecting human rights and democracy is a permanent one. It never ends. No matter how secure we may think our freedom is, there are always dangers. As Thomas Jefferson once warned: "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance."

But who must be vigilant? Certainly not us foreigners. To count on foreigners as the guardians of your freedoms is unwise. It is first and foremost the Cambodian people and their leaders who must accomplish this work. But the signatory nations to the Paris Accords still have a commitment. The work of the Paris Accords also never ends; we will always be concerned for the welfare of the Cambodian people. That concern will not diminish with time.

If Cambodia is to continue to progress, the Cambodian government, the political opposition, and civil society all must act in responsible and prudent ways. This means many things. It means that there needs to be greater tolerance for differing points of view and be less thin-skinned. It means there must be greater reluctance to file lawsuits against one another. But it means that they must engage in constructive dialogue rather than destructive name-calling. It means that there should be greater resistance to using xenophobic rhetoric to garner popular support. And it means mostly that all Cambodian must above all else consider what is best for Cambodia rather than first thinking of what is best for themselves.

The ancient Romans used to say, "courage is not the only virtue, but it is the one virtue that makes all other virtues possible." And where courage is lacking, so is discipline, accountability, compassion, integrity, and vision. So we hope for courage from all of Cambodia's leaders -- courage to risk imprisonment, courage to risk supporting greater freedom, courage to compromise and to be respectful of one another, courage to resolve historical differences with neighboring countries, courage to remember that the Cambodian people are what is important.

I would like to offer you a quote from another great American, Benjamin Franklin, America's first diplomat. Once, frustrated with his colleagues in the Continental Congress who were too worried about maintaining security and stability, Franklin warned them -- and it is a good reminder to all of us, Americans and Cambodians alike: "Those who would give up essential liberty to pursue a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

And if that is true, then the opposite is also true. That is, when political leaders are willing to risk a little temporary instability in order to preserve an essential liberty they ought to be commended. It takes courage to take risks for freedom whether you are a human rights activist or a prime minister, and I would like to praise both. Not only have the human rights activists and the political opposition been brave in voicing their concerns, but the Prime Minister has also shown courage in taking the difficult step of seeking political compromise with them.

These last few weeks have shown us all what Cambodians can accomplish when they work together and work for the betterment of Cambodia. His Majesty the King, the Prime Minister, the political opposition, especially Sam Rainsy, civil society, especially Kem Sokka, and many others all deserve praise for their efforts. We eagerly look forward to the political opposition once again playing its crucial role in Cambodia's democratic process. But that does not mean a bright future is guaranteed. There are still many pitfalls along the way. Democratic institutions must be strengthened, civil society must mature, the judiciary must become truly independent. And perhaps most importantly, there must be a responsible, but candid, exchange of views and ideas. The greatest single impediment to a candid exchange of views is the criminal defamation law. This single provision of law is a tremendous and dangerous threat to the freedom of every Cambodian.

The use of criminal defamation to silence dialogue in democratic society is worrisome. While some democratic countries continue to have such laws, their use is always severely constrained. And in most countries public officials cannot file defamation lawsuits. That is to say, public officials are public servants. Servants. They are servants of the public. So the question is simple: How can a servant ever sue his masters? It is not morally plausible. The President of the United States cannot sue another American for accusing him of treason and a U.S. Senator cannot sue another American for calling him corrupt. For public officials to sue for defamation is to turn things on their head -- and the servants of the people become their masters. In fact, criticism of public officials and public policy is vital to the democratic processes.

Theodore Roosevelt, a man who held what is likely the position that receives more criticism than any other, that of President of the United States of America once said, "To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public." This is true in America as it is true in any country that believes in democracy, including Cambodia.

When the U.S. Constitution was written over 200 years ago, the American people insisted that it include a list of the people's rights. The first right listed is freedom of expression. This right was listed first because it is the most important right we possess. Freedom of expression protects all the other rights. If the people cannot share views on important issues, there can be no public debate. Without freedom of expression, people cannot defend their property, their families, or even their lives. Freedom of expression is also the basis of any genuine and enduring stability. Efforts to control freedom of expression inevitably backfire.

Although Article 41 of the Cambodian constitution guarantees freedom of expression, the existence of criminal defamation severely limits this right. Removing defamation as a criminal act is probably the single most important thing that could be done to advance freedom of expression and democracy in Cambodia.

We believe the people and government of Cambodia will continue to commit themselves to expanding liberty, fostering democracy, and protecting human rights. As many of you know, it is the daily, down-in-the-streets, out-in-the-fields practice of democracy and the dedicated defense of human rights that prepares a nation for freedom and preserves freedom once it is attained. Cambodia stepped onto this path with its first democratic elections in 1993. But the road to democracy and respect for human rights is like many of the roads in Cambodia -- it is rough and full of hazards. But your roads are continually improving, and with perseverance and dedication Cambodia will continue to travel down this road.

The United States is dedicated to supporting the men and women who press for freedom here. The United States will also stand firmly beside any government determined to seek the rewards of liberty for its people. In this regard, I again commend the political compromises between the Prime Minister and the political opposition. And if you have been down near Wat Phnom recently, you have seen the new U.S. Embassy, which is a powerful symbol of our commitment to helping the Cambodian people and the Cambodian government achieve these goals. Thank You.

Released on February 10, 2006


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