Payne weighs in on human rights and rule of law in Cambodia

By Melissa Coade

Tuesday October 26, 2021

Marise Payne underscores Australia’s commitment to Cambodia.
Marise Payne underscores Australia’s commitment to Cambodia. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

Australia’s commitment to ensuring Cambodia walks the path of a ‘free and fair democratic nation’ has been underscored by foreign minister Marise Payne, ahead of elections earmarked for next year.

“Australia is deeply concerned by the deterioration in democratic freedoms and growing intolerance towards peacefully expressed dissenting views,” Payne said in a statement.

“This includes the banning of opposition parties, and the arrest and detention of civil society activists.”

The minister added that Australia would stand by those who safeguarded the principles of human rights and the rule of law. 

The foreign minister’s comments marked the anniversary of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, which were signed on 23 October 30 years ago. The accords attempted to reset the stage for Cambodia to emerge from its devastating years under the Maoist-inspired Khmer Rouge rule

In the time after the brutal Pol Pot period between 1975-1979, during which an estimated 2 million Cambodian people perished, one leader — a former Khmer Rouge soldier — Hun Sen has led the Southeast Asian nation as prime minister for more than 36 years. 

By 2017, the front of a democratically elected government in Cambodia had totally fallen away, with authoritarian court orders that Opposition parties be disbanded and military crackdowns on so-called ‘dissent’ becoming commonplace. As a result, the ruling party in Cambodia has been running unopposed elections since 2018.

The Australian foreign minister urged prime minister Hun Sen and others in Cambodia’s small ruling class to consider preserving democratic processes in the developing country ahead of its 2022 and 2023 elections.

“The rights and freedoms set out in the Paris Peace Agreements remain as indispensable today to Cambodia’s peace and prosperity as they did 30 years ago,” Payne said. 

“As a longstanding friend of Cambodia, we encourage the Cambodian government to take steps to rebuild relations with the former political opposition and civil society in advance of elections in 2022 and 2023, and to protect and preserve the right to peaceful expression of alternative views as a pathway towards a more tolerant, robust and inclusive Cambodia,” she said. 

In March this year, the Phnom Penh municipal court convicted nine exiled politicians of the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) (the main Opposition party) on trumped-up charges, accusing them of attempting a coup with charges to ‘commit felony’ and ‘attack’ under articles 27 and 451 of Cambodia’s penal code. The politically motivated case was spurred by unfounded claims that the politicians were attempting a coup, which stoked painful memories of 1975 — when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge executed a coup d’état on the ruling government of the day.

According to Human Rights Watch, Hun Sen has led a campaign of mass trials against opposition figures based on their political affiliation and against activists engaged in peaceful activism and expression. The NGO says the cases of 75 political prisoners have been documented including opposition members, youth and environmental activists, trade union leaders, and journalists. 

The Australian foreign minister also noted that despite the strides Cambodia had made since 1979 to improve the living conditions of its people, lift access to education, and reduce infant and maternal mortality, the government needed to show a genuine commitment to democracy. 

“Australia is proud to have played a leading role in brokering the Agreements, which laid the path for the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) that facilitated the holding of free and fair elections in Cambodia in 1993,” Payne said.

“Australia has remained a close partner and friend of Cambodia ever since.”

We support the institutions established during UNTAC to improve governance, decision-making and accountability at all levels of society,” she said. 

Australia was one of 19 co-signatories to the Paris Accords in 1991, Payne noted, and over the years has invested in many development cooperation programs to improve the lives of some of the most vulnerable civilians in Cambodia. 

Australia’s development cooperation program makes a real difference to the lives of Cambodians, with a focus on the most vulnerable, including women and girls and people with disabilities,” she said. 

“We work with Cambodia to deal with the legacies of past conflict, including the de-mining of land still contaminated by the remnants of conflict, and supporting the work of the Khmer Rouge Tribunals. Australia is also partnering with Cambodia in its COVID-19 response,” Payne said. 

In a statement acknowledging the 30-year anniversary of the accords, Australia’s shadow minister for foreign affairs Penny Wong acknowledged the efforts of her Labor predecessor Gareth Evans, who helped map a way forward for Cambodia ‘through the intractable’ context that saw the ASEAN, China, Russia and the US supporting different sides. Wong said that it was Evans who identified a way for the UN — via UNTAC — to play an unprecedented role in governing the country during its transition period. 

“The Paris Peace Agreements are among the greatest achievements of Australian foreign policy and serve as a reminder of the positive impact that energetic and focused diplomacy can have,” Wong said. 

The ambition of these Agreements was not limited to peace, but also democracy, inclusion, and respect for human rights for all Cambodians. Labor recognises the advocacy and contribution of the Cambodian diaspora communities across Australia, in these pursuits.”


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