Dear Secretary Clinton,
We write in the aftermath of the forcible deportation of 20 Uighur asylum seekers from Cambodia on December 19, 2009 without an examination of their refugee claims. We appreciate your personal intervention as well as the efforts of numerous State Department officials, including Ambassador Carol Rodley and her team in Phnom Penh, in this matter.
We share the State Department's deep concern about the fate of this group, which included two children. We have received unconfirmed reports that some returnees have been tried and sentenced to death, while others have been sentenced to prison. We cannot confirm this information, but our inability to establish the facts highlights the refusal of the Chinese government to provide information on the fate of the returnees. We ask that you personally and urgently insist that the Chinese authorities make public the whereabouts, conditions and legal status of the individuals returned on December 19.
The flagrant violation of international and domestic law by the Cambodian government is part of a disturbing recent trend. At the best of times, Prime Minister Hun Sen and other officials routinely violate the human rights of people in Cambodia and ignore the government's obligations under international law. But this action suggests a new and profound disregard by the Cambodian government for minimum standards of due process, refugee protection, and international cooperation.
We appreciate the State Department's December 19 statement that, "This incident will affect Cambodia's relationship with the U.S. and its international standing." We take this opportunity to make recommendations about Cambodia's policies and practices with respect to refugees, and also about steps the US could take in its bilateral relationship that are likely to have the greatest impact on those responsible for serious abuses.
The 2008 transfer of sole responsibility for Refugee Status Determination (RSD) to the Cambodian government was clearly premature. The deportation of the Uighurs shows that Cambodia is not willing to assess asylum claims fairly and impartially and to provide sufficient protection for registered asylum seekers and recognized refugees, especially those from Vietnam and China.
This is not the first time that, in violation of its obligations as a state party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Cambodia has forcibly repatriated refugees and asylum seekers who are citizens of countries with whom it has close relations, such as Vietnam and China. Large numbers of Vietnamese asylum seekers have been returned to Vietnam, while Human Rights Watch knows of at least four Chinese asylum seekers under the protection of UNHCR who were arrested in Phnom Penh in 2002 and 2004 and sent back to China.
The return of the Uighurs is connected to the deteriorating human rights situation in Cambodia in recent years, which Human Rights Watch, the State Department and others have documented. The problems include chronic impunity for police, military, and government officials involved in serious rights violations, land grabbing and forced evictions, and restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association.
Known rights abusers are gaining increasing power, with the promotion in 2009 of several military officials implicated in torture, extrajudicial killings, and political violence, including two military commanders linked to the deadly March 30, 1997 grenade attack on an opposition party rally. Military units are complicit in Cambodia's epidemic of forced evictions and land grabbing, often deployed to carry out forcible and violent evictions of villagers whose ownership claims to the land had never been properly or fairly dealt with by the courts. Police and soldiers frequently used excessive force in evictions, such as in March 2009, when security forces opened fire on unarmed farmers protesting confiscation of their land in Siem Reap, seriously wounding four villagers. Cambodian armed forces personnel have increasingly been involved in land-grabbing from villagers, either for personal benefit or on behalf of government officials or private companies. They have been involved in carrying out evictions ordered by government officials in violation of Cambodian law and without authority or training to exercise police powers.
The use of heavily armed soldiers in forced evictions has had deadly results. In November 2007 in Preah Vihear province, for example, soldiers and border police shot and killed two unarmed villagers during an eviction of more than 300 families. For 30 hours after the incident, soldiers sealed off the area, blocked workers from nongovernmental organizations from entering, and looted the belongings of the evicted families.
Human Rights Watch remains particularly concerned about US training and military assistance to Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) units or individuals that have been implicated in serious human rights violations. This includes counter-terror training to personnel from Prime Minister Hun Sen's elite Bodyguard Unit and Brigade 70, who have been moved to a special anti-terrorist unit that was created in January 2008. Both these units have been implicated in countless rights abuses, including the March 30, 1997 grenade attack and more recent instances of arbitrary detention and torture. While the US Under Secretary of Defense's response in October 2009 to a congressional query referred to "additional background checks" having been conducted on personnel from the new anti-terrorism unit with regard to the 1997 period, the Under Secretary of Defense did not respond to a congressional question as to what actions the US government has taken to establish the identities of the Bodyguard Unit personnel who were present during the March 30, 1997 grenade attack, and what the US government is doing to ensure that these individuals are not included in any US-sponsored training of RCAF forces.
The counter-terrorism unit's links to Hun Sen's Bodyguard Unit and Brigade 70 raise disturbing questions. They raise doubts about the standard of vetting of US military aid recipients and the possibility that the new counter-terrorism unit was created, at least in part, in order to avoid the Leahy Amendment's restrictions. The Under Secretary of Defense noticeably did not respond to a congressional question asking how many members of the National Counter-Terrorism Special Forces unit come from Hun Sen's Bodyguard Unit, while asserting that all personnel involved in military training in the United States have undergone "individual vetting."
US training has also been provided to members of Airborne Brigade 911. Both the unit and its commander, Maj. Gen. Chap Pheakdey, have been implicated in well-documented violations, including arbitrary detentions, post-election violence in 1998, and the torture and summary execution of FUNCINPEC commanders during the 1997 coup.
US-donated trucks have been provided to Brigade 31 (formerly known as Division 44 and then Battalion 44), under its long-time commander Brig. Gen. Srun Saroeun, which has been implicated in recent years in illegal logging, land-grabbing from poor villagers, and intimidation of opposition party activists during the 2008 national elections, as well as the summary executions of FUNCINPEC soldiers during the 1997 coup.
These are but a few examples of units and individuals that should have been excluded from US military assistance on the grounds that they have been implicated in gross human rights violations. US training and military support for such units raises serious questions about the quality of vetting done by the State and Defense Departments of RCAF units and individuals and shows why better screening is vital.
Recommendations regarding Cambodia
Following discussions in Phnom Penh, Washington DC, and Geneva with various US and UN officials, we urge the US government to:
- Relocate the 2010 Global Peace Operations Initiatives (GPOI) operation from Cambodia to another country. Prohibit participation of the Cambodian military, police, and gendarmerie in GPOI activities until a thorough vetting process screens out abusive members of participating units.
- Ensure that US government vetting of Cambodian military, police, counter-terror, and gendarme units is thorough and effective and does not allow human rights abusers to receive support, training, authorization to visit the US, or awards such as those given in the past by the FBI. Press other countries offering training and support to such units to also conduct effective vetting. Make continuing US support and training for such units conditional on serious investigations and prosecutions of human rights abusers.
- End all high-level contacts between US and Cambodian military officials, such as last year's meeting between Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh, until genuine progress is made in establishing accountability within the Cambodian military.
- Reinstate bans on US government funding to the Cambodian government for International Military Education and Training and Foreign Military Financing and prohibit the participation of Cambodian military, police, and gendarmes in US-sponsored training programs, including access to US military academies. Once the process of vetting the human rights records of units seeking to participate in US training and other programs has undergone a thorough evaluation and substantial improvements have been implemented to address current deficiencies in the vetting process, and units and individuals implicated in gross human rights violations have been excluded from participation in US-funded programs and material support, the Departments of State and Defense should then consider resumption of military assistance.
- Urge Cambodia to return responsibility for Refugee Status Determination (RSD) to UNHCR. The Cambodian government has clearly demonstrated that it is unable or unwilling to impartially carry out RSD, a key part of the refugee screening process.
- Offer sanctuary and protection in future instances in which asylum seekers are clearly in jeopardy in Cambodia. The US embassy has the ability to offer protection, process these cases, and resettle such individuals.
Recommendations regarding China
The US should press the Chinese government to:
- Make public the whereabouts, conditions and legal status of the 20 Uighurs returned to China from Cambodia on December 19, 2009.
- Allow appropriate UN agencies and members of the international diplomatic community regular and unrestricted access to the Uighur returnees, so that their conditions can be adequately monitored.
- Allow UNHCR to complete the Refugee Status Determination process that it had already initiated when the returnees were arrested or, if that is not possible, allow US officials access to conduct RSD for the purpose of in-country refugee processing as part of the US refugee resettlement program.
- Immediately release the returnees unless charged with a cognizable criminal offense on the basis of credible evidence, and provide full due process rights, including access to legal counsel and family members, as provided under international law.
- Ensure that returnees who are charged with a criminal offense receive a fair and public trial before a competent, independent and impartial court that meets international fair trial standards.
We further urge the United States to continue to express its concerns to the Chinese government that China's intense pressure on the Cambodian government to return the Uighurs and violate its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention and numerous Cambodian laws was unacceptable.
There are also lessons for the role of UNHCR. Human Rights Watch believes that part of the reason that UNHCR failed this group of asylum seekers is its weakness in the region. We believe that UNHCR did not opt to take responsibility for this group at a point in time when it is possible that the Cambodian authorities would have been willing to defer responsibility to UNHCR. Later, when it appeared that the Cambodian government had asserted that it had sole responsibility regarding their asylum claims, UNHCR could have cited its Manual on Mandate RSD, which lists circumstances in which UNHCR may exercise its own RSD mandate in states that have their own RSD procedures. One of those circumstances is when doing so would help secure durable solutions for the asylum applicants should they be recognized as refugees.
In the future, if it appears that UNHCR cannot or will not carry out RSD or provide adequate protection, the US should use the "Priority One" authority provided by US refugee processing priorities to identify and to resettle vulnerable and at-risk refugees directly from Cambodia, without the necessity of a UNHCR referral.
We also urge the US government to insist that UNHCR immediately put in place protection and expedited RSD measures for other high-risk asylum seekers currently in Cambodia from countries such as China and Vietnam.
Thank you for your consideration. We would be pleased to discuss this further with relevant US government officials at their convenience.
Brad Adams Bill Frelick
Director, Asia Division Director, Refugees Program
Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State, EAP
Eric Schwartz, Assistant Secretary of State, PRM
Scot Marciel, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, EAP
Carol Rodley, US Ambassador to Cambodia
Scott Busby, Director for Human Rights, Office of Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights, NSC
Kasidis Rochanakorn, Director of the Asia Bureau, UNHCR