Former Japan football player Keisuke Honda walks on the pitch during his debut as coach of Cambodia's national football team at a friendly match against Malaysia, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, September 10, 2018. 

© 2018 Reuters
(New York) – The international football star Keisuke Honda’s agreement to coach Cambodia’s national soccer team links him to a senior Cambodian official implicated in killings and alleged war crimes, Human Rights Watch said on December 3, 2018, in a letter to Honda. In the letter, Human Rights Watch detailed the record of the official, Gen. Sao Sokha, who heads Cambodia’s national football league.

Honda was a member of the Japan national team from 2008 until 2018. He has played for professional teams in the Netherlands, Russia, Italy, and Australia. Sokha, the president of the Football Federation of Cambodia, is the deputy supreme commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, commander of the Royal Khmer Gendarmerie, and a close associate of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

“Seeing a photo of Keisuke Honda with such a notorious human rights abuser as Sokha in August at a news conference was shocking,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “We have expressed concern about the credibility a world-famous football star may give to a world-class human rights abuser and the message that sends to Cambodia’s long-suffering people.”

As detailed in the Human Rights Watch June 2018 report, “‘The Dirty Dozen’: A Long History of Abuses by Hun Sen’s Generals,” Sokha’s forces have been responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, wrongful arrests, attacks on peaceful protesters, and other violations.

The abuses in which the Royal Khmer Gendarmerie have been implicated prompted the United Nations special representative for human rights to call for the force to be dismantled. Human Rights Watch has urged the Cambodian government to remove Sokha from his position, conduct a criminal investigation, and prosecute him as appropriate for human rights abuses.

When Sokha was appointed president of the Cambodian federation in 2006, FIFA, football’s international governing body, refused to recognize his appointment because he was appointed after an illegal election. The Phnom Penh Post reported that, “A letter addressed to the CFF [Cambodian Football Federation] and signed by Joseph S. Blatter, president of Zurich-based FIFA, reads that ‘all the documents received by FIFA conclude that Article 17 [on expulsion] of the FIFA statute has been flagrantly violated on the grounds of political interference …. FIFA is not in a position to recognize the so-called election.’” Hun Sen appears to have installed Sokha to replace the person who had been properly appointed and was close to Hun Sen’s political rival.

Responding to concerns from Human Rights Watch and others, FIFA has added in recent years the promotion of human rights to its governing statutesadopted a Human Rights Policy that applies across all operations, hired a human rights director, and established a Human Rights Advisory Board. Human Rights Watch engages regularly with FIFA to advise on these priorities and raise concerns.