A member of the Cambodian military salutes from a tank during a parade to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the establishment of the Brigade 70, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh on October 13, 2009.

© 2009 Reuters

(New York) - US acceptance of a Cambodian military base with a record of human rights abuses as the site of an annual peacekeeping exercise in Asia undermines the US commitment to promoting human rights in Cambodia, Human Rights Watch said today.

The "Angkor Sentinel" exercise is part of the 2010 Global Peace Operations Initiative, an effort jointly run by the US Departments of Defense and State to help train peacekeepers. Co-hosted by the US Pacific Command, Angkor Sentinel will be the largest multinational military exercise held this year in the Asia-Pacific region, with more than 1,000 military personnel from 23 Asia-Pacific countries taking part.

The peacekeeping exercises will begin on July 12, 2010, with a five-day "command post" exercise in Phnom Penh. A two-week field training exercise will follow on a portion of a military base in Kompong Speu province formerly occupied by the ACO Tank Command Headquarters. The US Defense Department funded construction there of a US$1.8 million training center designed specifically for the 2010 initiative. While the official groundbreaking ceremony for the GPOI exercise in December 2009 - attended by US and Cambodian officials - took place while the site was still part of the ACO tank headquarters, the site was officially signed over to the National Center for Peacekeeping Forces in a ceremony on May 3, 2010.

"For the Pentagon and State Department to approve construction of facilities for a high-profile regional peacekeeping exercise at the base of an abusive Cambodian military unit -whether it subsequently changed names or not - is outrageous," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The US undermines its protests against the Cambodian government for rampant rights abuses like forced evictions when it showers international attention and funds on military units involved in grabbing land and other human rights violations."

For years, the ACO Tank Unit has been involved in illegal land seizures, as documented by the US State Department and by Cambodian and international human rights organizations. In

November 2008, the unit seized the farmland of 133 families in Banteay Meanchey province, ostensibly to build a military base. In 2007, soldiers from the unit in Kompong Speu province used armored vehicles to flatten villagers' fences, destroy their crops, and confiscate their land.

Since 2006, the US has provided more than $4.5 million worth of military equipment and training to Cambodia. Some of that aid has gone to units and individuals within the Cambodian military with records of serious human rights violations, including Brigade 31, Brigade 70, and Airborne Brigade 911.

The Phnom Penh portion of Angkor Sentinel is likely to showcase elite Cambodian military units based near the capital, such as Prime Minister Hun Sen's personal bodyguard unit and Brigade 70, both of which have been linked to a deadly March 1997 grenade attack on the political opposition, and Airborne Brigade 911, which has been involved in arbitrary detentions, political violence, torture, and summary executions. US material assistance has also gone toward rights-abusing units such as Brigade 31, formerly known as Division 44, which in 2008 used US-donated trucks to forcibly move villagers evicted from their land in Kampot province. In recent years Brigade 31 has been implicated in illegal logging, land grabbing, and intimidation of opposition party activists during the 2008 national elections. The unit was also involved in summary executions of captured soldiers loyal to the FUNCINPEC party during a 1997 coup staged by Hun Sun.

Cambodian military personnel are not held accountable for serious rights violations. Instead, Hun Sen has promoted military officers implicated in torture, extrajudicial killings, and political violence, such as Hing Bunheang, the deputy commander of Brigade 70 at the time of the 1997 grenade attack, who was made deputy commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces in January 2009.

In December 2009, Cambodia deported 20 ethnic Uighur asylum seekers at grave risk back to China on the eve of a visit by senior Chinese officials to Phnom Penh. The US cancelled delivery of 200 surplus military trucks and trailers to Cambodia under the US Excess Defense Articles program. This was only the most minimal response to a serious breach of Cambodia's obligations as a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Human Rights Watch said.

In February, Hun Sen announced plans for corporate sponsorship of military units as a way to support defense costs. More than 40 Cambodian businesses have agreed to subsidize military units, including some companies that have long been allowed to misuse military units as the equivalent of security contractors to protect and support their business ventures in agri-business, banking, casinos, and national media.

"By essentially auctioning off military units, Hun Sen revealed that many military units are little more than guns for hire, not the defenders of the Cambodian people," Robertson said. "The US should not be training corrupt and abusive military units for global peacekeeping."

The US government should suspend military aid to Cambodia pending an improved and thorough human rights vetting process that screens out abusive individuals or units from receiving any aid or training, Human Rights Watch said. Certain military units, as well as individual personnel from them, should be immediately banned from Defense Department assistance, including Hun Sen's bodyguard unit, Brigade 70, Brigade 31, and Airborne Brigade 911, and any of their sub-units.

"US support for peacekeeping training cannot mean turning a blind eye to soldiers and units who have violated human rights," Robertson said. "Instead, military units that are called to deploy abroad as international peacekeepers must be true professionals, not only in technical expertise, but in their respect for human rights."