Obama Should Make Ending 20 Years of Impunity Central Goal of Upcoming Visit
(New York) – Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s violent and authoritarian rule over more than two decades has resulted in countless killings and other serious abuses that have gone unpunished, Human Rights Watch said in a new report today. President Barack Obama should use his November trip to Cambodia, the first ever by a United States president, to publicly demand systematic reforms and an end to impunity for abusive officials.
The 68-page report, “‘Tell Them That I Want to Kill Them’: Two Decades of Impunity in Hun Sen’s Cambodia,” documents key cases of unsolved killings of political activists, journalists, opposition politicians, and others by Cambodian security forces since the 1991 Paris Agreements, which were signed by 18 countries, including the five permanent United Nations Security Council members. The Paris Agreements and the subsequent United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission were supposed to usher in a new era of democracy, human rights, and accountability in Cambodia. More than 300 people have been killed in politically motivated attacks since then, yet not one case has resulted in a credible investigation and conviction.
The involvement of senior Cambodian government officials and military, police, gendarmerie, and intelligence personnel in serious abuses since the Paris Agreements has been repeatedly documented by the UN, the US State Department, domestic and international human rights organizations, and the media. Human Rights Watch identifies many of these officials and their current positions.
“Instead of prosecuting officials responsible for killings and other serious abuses, Prime Minister Hun Sen has promoted and rewarded them,” said Brad Adams, Asia director and co-author of the report. “The message to Cambodians is that even well-known killers are above the law if they have protection from the country’s political and military leaders. Donor governments, instead of pressing for accountability, have adopted a business-as-usual approach.”
“Tell Them That I Want to Kill Them,” is based on hundreds of interviews over many years with current and former government officials, members of the armed forces, the police, the judiciary, parliament and other state institutions, and representatives of political parties, labor unions, the media, and human rights organizations. It is also based on information from UN documents, reports of UN special representatives and rapporteurs and the Cambodia Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, reports by Human Rights Watch and other international and local nongovernmental human rights organizations, and media accounts.
The report’s title is a quote from Hing Bun Heang, then deputy chief of Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, in response to a journalist’s question about his alleged role in the killing of at least 16 people in a coordinated grenade attack on opposition leader Sam Rainsy in March 1997. The UN and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) implicated the bodyguard unit in the attack and identified Hing Bun Heang as being in operational control. Hing Bun Heang was later promoted to the rank of lieutenant general and is now deputy commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.
Often the perpetrators of killings are not only known, but have been promoted. This was the case with members of the brutal “A-team” death squads during the 1992-93 UN peacekeeping mission and security officials who carried out a campaign of killings of opposition members after Hun Sen’s 1997 coup. More recent killings, including that of labor leader Chea Vichea, opposition politician Om Radsady, and environmental activist Chut Wutty, remain unsolved. Even in cases where there was no apparent political motivation, abuses almost never result in successful criminal prosecutions and commensurate prison terms if the perpetrator is in the military or police, or is politically connected.
Human Rights Watch’s report details a number of cases of extrajudicial killings and other abuses that have not been genuinely investigated or prosecuted by the authorities:
- The killing of dozens of opposition politicians and activists during the UN peacekeeping period in 1992-93;
- The murder of opposition newspaper editor Thun Bun Ly on the streets of Phnom Penh in May 1996;
- The campaign of extrajudicial executions of almost 100 royalist-affiliated officials after Hun Sen’s July 1997 coup, including Deputy Interior Minister Ho Sok in the Ministry of Interior compound;
- The 1999 acid attack that disfigured 16-year-old Tat Marina by the wife of Svay Sitha, a senior government official;
- The 2003 execution-style killing of Om Radsady, a well-respected opposition member of parliament, in a crowded Phnom Penh restaurant;
- The 2004 killing of popular labor leader Chea Vichea;
- The 2008 killing of investigative journalist Khim Sambo and his son while the two exercised in a public park; and
- The 2012 killing of environmental activist Chut Wutty in Koh Kong province.
“The list of political killings over the past 20 years is bone-chilling,” Adams said. “While there is a public uproar after each case, officials do nothing and there are no consequences for the perpetrators or the government that protects them.”
To address Cambodia’s scourge of impunity, Human Rights Watch urges the government to:
- Create a professional and independent police service whose leadership is appointed by an independent police commission, which also has the power to audit the police, investigate complaints, and dismiss officers who violate a professional code of conduct;
- Create a professional and independent judiciary and prosecution service. Judges and prosecutors should be appointed by an independent judicial commission, which also has the power to investigate complaints and discipline judges and prosecutors who violate a professional code of conduct;
- Ban senior police officials, judges, and prosecutors holding official or unofficial positions of leadership in political parties; and to
- Respond in a professional and impartial manner to allegations of human rights abuses by victims and their families, human rights organizations and other civil society groups, the UN human rights office and other UN agencies, the media, and others who bring concerns to the government’s attention.
“Recommendations to find justice for victims will not be implemented without sustained and coordinated pressure from powerful governments working alongside the many brave Cambodians who document abuses,” Adams said. “Many governments talk about the ‘culture of impunity’ in Cambodia, but they should also address their own culture of indifference.”
Cambodia’s past two decades have been a story of missed opportunities. Year after year, donors have proposed – and the Cambodian government has agreed to – significant reforms, such as measures to promote the professionalization of the police and independence of prosecutors and judges. Yet the justice system remains a deeply and unwaveringly politicized institution, whose top officials are political appointees with primary allegiance to the prime minister and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. Foreign governments, the UN, and donors have not taken the time to learn about past abuses and abusers, and have not put sustained and coordinated pressure on senior officials and government institutions responsible for serious human rights violations.
“The lack of accountability in Cambodia needs to be addressed head-on, not ignored or downplayed, as so many foreign governments and donors have done over the past 20 years,” Adams said. “Without memory, justice is impossible. Governments and donors should stop talking in generalities about rights and start confronting senior government and ruling party officials about the failure of justice.”
While the United States has been one of the most outspoken critics of the Cambodian government’s human rights record in recent years, its actions toward officials implicated in serious abuses often undercut its words. In March 2006, the FBI awarded a medal to the then-Cambodian chief of national police, Hok Lundy, for his support of the US global campaign against terrorism. Hok Lundy, who died in a helicopter crash in 2008, was a notorious human rights abuser and perhaps the most feared person in Cambodia. The medal from the US was used as a major propaganda tool by the Cambodian government, while human rights activists called into question the true intentions of the US.
In September 2009, then-US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates hosted a meeting at the Pentagon in Washington with Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh. Tea Banh has presided over the Cambodian military for the past two decades, during which it has committed widespread abuses with impunity. Unsurprisingly, Tea Banh was greeted as a hero by the ruling party-controlled media upon his return from the United States.
“Hun Sen has been in power for 27 years and says he wants to rule for another 30, yet victims of abuses cannot wait that long for justice,” Adams said. “On his historic first visit to Cambodia, President Obama is uniquely placed to publicly demand that Hun Sen make genuine reforms so the Cambodian people can enjoy the same rights and freedoms that Americans take for granted.”