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The Pantomime of Human Rights

Readers unfamiliar with British theatre and the background to this blog, will need an explanation.  My theme in all postings is to relate earlier experiences in Northumbrian life to contemporary Cambodia, and/or to developing countries generally, for lessons to be shared.  The Theatre Royal in Newcastle dates back to 1788, and the present fine building to 1837.  Nobody today would deny that the UK in those days was enlightened when it comes to human rights, but very important reforms were begun, for example in relation to employment and children in 1833.  

In response to enquiries about Cambodia's various human rights committees I have added notes of explanation below.

The North East of England even today lags behind the South, making life harder for the poor, although the worst days may be over. Those were not so long ago as portrayed in local author Catherine Cookson's novels, who I refer to in another blog. (Her own life typifies the hardships.) Having said that recently the UK, Australia, and other “developed” countries have been found wanting in children’s rights, of girls and boys, suggesting to me that “we” in the West should not be exporting our solutions but helping developing countries to come up with their own.

The “Pantomime” is a staple of British theatre, a live comedy still much enjoyed by children, and adults who may pretend otherwise!
“Oh yes I am!” “Oh no you’re not!”

As children in post-World War II austere Britain, it was our first exciting, never-to-be forgotten Chrismas treat.  Longhoughton Village took us to Newcastle to see a pantomime.  The 30 mile trip was three hours each way (the XI8 bus today is 30 minutes faster!).  It was also the first time to a big city and a theatre like the Theatre Royal. The show was Widow Twanky and Wishy-Washy. We sang the signature song for months/years afterwards “There’a hole in my bucket.” I remember the words to this day.

Equally though I remember the audience participation section, definitely a major part in any pantomime, where two actors or sets of actors argue and contradict each other.  One may say “I am prettier than you”, then the other would respond with “Oh no you’re not!” countered by “Oh yes I am!” and so on and so forth, each seeking maximum audible support from the audience.

It is great fun.  However, it is far from high-brow intellectual debate.

Every time, we receive reports from august bodies such as the United Nations Human Rights Council, advocates often seem incapable of rising above pantomime argument.  Indeed, even when very important issues are raised in human rights reports, spokesmen resort to “Oh, no you are not…right!” And then often all the other side can do is to reply “Oh yes I am!”

There are good reasons for this seemingly childish approach, and it is shame that the science of human rights is so slow to develop, despite 67 years since the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

Cambodia's human rights scene is typical of most countries.  It is one of inevitable conflict, especially due to the concentration on civil and political rights, as distinct from less controversial economic, social and cultural rights. 

The main professional or adversarial approach adopted by Human Rights Organisations (HROs) or Defenders (HRDs), is the classic legalistic-technical one, most visible with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch but followed by most other organizations.  The process involves identifying the violation and "naming, blaming and shaming" the violator.  Then law enforcement and judicial systems are supposed to work to correct the injustices.  Unfortunately that is rare, too often they make matters worse.

Usually the two sides approach things from totally opposite perceptions or frames of reference. The government and its supporters say “Look, we have come a long way in a short time since the worst crimes of the Khmer Rouge”.  Human Rights Defenders say “but Cambodia still falls far short of international standards as enjoyed in other countries, and to which it has signed up for in various international instruments”.  Both are true but both sides cannot even agree on that!

And while the two sides argue, very little if anything ends up being done for the victims in the middle, or to prevent more victims from suffering the same fate in future.

The “system” to put things right is not working.  Expertise, and any good will to change things on the part of both sides, is not mobilized for the sake of the country and the people.  There is no statesmanship – and I use “man” deliberately.  Instead the mentality persists of “If you are not my friend, you are my enemy”, and the two sides keep their distance. Some Human Rights Defenders argue that they must keep that distance, to retain their credibility on behalf of victims, by not being seen to be "in bed with the enemy!”.
One peculiar disturbing legacy in Cambodia is the disdain for Cambodians who have lived and worked abroad regardless of their circumstances - whether they fled to save their lives or if they have gained valuable education and experiences.  Sophal Ear of Occidental College in Los Angeles explains. He is the author of "Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy" and one of the few but growing number of us who question foreign aid interventions in Cambodia. “The term is anikachhun’ he explains "a particularly strong and sometimes derogatory term for Khmer foreigner.”

Defending the main Defender of Human Rights Defenders
Too many human rights debates are played out in public, rather than away from the glare of publicity, where things are more likely to get done.

Of course there is an alternative approach "rights-based development (RBD)" and we did pioneer it in Cambodia. Indeed it was formally integrated in my first human rights NGO's  "constructive engagement" approach. (For more on RBD go here.)  Unfortunately it never really caught on. "Save the Children" fund and development NGOs did better than HROs*.

Outgoing United Nations Human Rights Rapporteur, Professor Surya Subedi, will certainly be disappointed that in his time, there has been no tangible progress towards a genuine impartial National Human Rights Commission.  Agreement on one has eluded Cambodia for 20 years. The fact that politicians and human rights defenders cannot talk to each other, let alone agree to join such a body, reflects badly on both sides. ( For more see his post-service reflections.)

One thing I learned when growing up in Northumberland - and a self-evident truth throughout my career - is that “problems are best solved as quickly as possible and at the lowest-level”. 

To take issues out the country and all the way to Geneva may be good theatre but it does not make sense.

www.queens-theatre.co.uk ; Cinderella Dec 2011 - Jan 2012 photo by Nobby Clark

A scene from Cinderella when the maid in domestic servitude finally meets her Prince, escaping from tyranny to a better life, and living happily ever after.  The curtain then closes.  The show is over.

Update August 2019

1  Abolition of two National Holidays

No surprise at all that the current government has abolished the two holidays to celebrate Human Rights and the Paris Peace Accords that contributed to the end of conflict in Cambodia. 

2   Cambodia’s Confusing Human Rights Committees

Many countries and some international groupings like ASEAN have adopted human rights bodies, usually committees or commissions, to a certain extent modeled on the UN Human Rights Commission.  Their actual powers vary but the aim is in theory or practice to promote and protect human rights. The frameworks and standards are those enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and other UN Covenants as well as those adopted for example by American and European states in their own instruments.

Cambodia intended to have its own National Human Rights Commission.  Indeed one was seen as an important element in its restoration of peace and democracy following the Paris Peace Accords in 1991 and its new constitution.  Various discussions have taken place, although not in recent years, and it would be fair to say that UN Rapporteurs on Human Rights are disappointed one has not been formed.  Instead various other committees have been set up most notably the government’s own Human Rights Committee.

Although the government and ruling party have been ambivalent about such a body, there have also been obstacles raised by human rights organisations who have not presented co-ordinated positions.  In order to be truly national, independent, and professionally competent, the body would need to be headed by people drawn from both sides.  The UN’s Human Rights office in Cambodia and other external experts could also feature in external neutral roles.

The main obstacle raised by NGOs is as described in the main blog above – i.e., whether or not to engage directly with the government at the risk of independence being regarded as compromised.  As I explained there are always mutually opposed arguments for and against constructive engagement.  The real argument, however, is about trust and good will.  The argument put forward with validity is that the government is yet to demonstrate that it is serious about universal human rights and that it will respect and abide by decisions made by such a body. However without testing the reality that charge cannot be substantiated.

Next to that is the question of who would serve on the non-government side, and sadly here again the real argument is about trust and good will. Basically human rights organisations have not been able to reach consensus. They are quite good at co-ordinating and agreeing on major issues of the day but that is as far as it goes.

This mistrust is most evident with the “Cambodia Human Rights Action Committee ” (CHRAC) set up to co-ordinate all human rights organisations in order to react to policies and issues. It has suffered several weaknesses typical of Cambodia. Firstly not all organisations joined or stayed and sometimes they could not agree joint responses. Secondly CHRAC at times operated as an NGO in its own right instead of on behalf of its members.  There were incidences of misconduct that were damaging.

The National Assembly and then the Senate after it was formed have their own human rights committees included as part of their standing commissions. Neither is very active today but when Kem Sokha headed the National Assembly’s Commission, it did try to do commendable work.  In those days of coalition government, this commission’s chairmanship was given to the junior coalition partner.

The government’s or Cambodia Human Rights Committee is a standing and active mechanism currently headed by Keo Remy who was an Opposition member until defecting to the ruling party and given this role.  He replaced Om Yien Tieng who relinquished the post, or was relieved of it, to concentrate on his chairmanship of the Government’s Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU).  Occasionally they surprise but most usually they adopt the ruling party’s line summed up above that human rights are better than during the Khmer Rouge period. No matter what evidence of serious violations is presented, for example at the UN Human Rights Council, the line is always to deny, seldom acting pro-actively on recommendations. The government is impervious to the reality that this harms its reputation and credibility, especially when it resorts to criticizing the people who compile and present the evidence instead of addressing and answering it.

Notes to go with original blog:

This article also raises questions about the way human rights are pursued:


A few lighter comments on Pantomimes

The Theatre Royal pantomimes are still doing well in 2016 and 2017.

Pantomimes were really early human rights educational messages.

The story-line in all is one of good prevailing over evil in the end.

They also promote equality, and greater of equality of opportunity, as the central character usually a heroine succeeds to a better well-deserved life.

For many unfamiliar with the format, if they see it, they will wonder if it is not also one of  very early LGBT rights. Certainly the format ran for centuries without stigma or prejudice.

The plot is very simple: The girl dressed as a boy who is the son of a man dressed as a woman, will win the other girl (surprisingly dressed as a girl!  The main characters are usually the good Principal Boy (who is a girl) winning the heroine (a real girl) who is oppressed by her wicked relatives (men dressed as women).

* It always takes two sides in an arrangement to make things work. Therefore if both sides remain suspicious of each other they are less likely to find common ground. Overtures are often made by HROs towards authorities and indeed we have carried out projects together.  Two quite successful examples are the "Good Governance" and "Human Rights Teaching Methodology" programmes described elsewhere. By contrast one similarly well-intended mutual co-operation project was included in the World Bank-funded "Land Administration and Management Project". One component failed. It was intended that people losing land or harmed by land-use development projects would have access to legal support and compensation. The funds for "Legal Aid" NGOs were to be issued by the government from the approved budget lines.  However authorities were not keen to encourage people to exercise those rights and the NGOs did not want to be compromised by taking money directly from government. That dilemma and the land dispute remain unsolved to this day.

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