As the executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division since 2002, Brad Adams oversees the organization’s work on human rights issues in twenty countries, including Cambodia. At Human Rights Watch, he has worked on a wide range of issues including freedom of expression, protection of civil society and human rights defenders, counterterrorism, refugees, gender and religious discrimination and armed conflict.
Prior to Human Rights Watch, Adams worked in Cambodia for five years as the senior lawyer for the Cambodia field office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and as the legal advisor to the Cambodian parliament’s human rights committee.
He sat down with RFA journalist Nareth Muong in the RFA TV studio in Washington to discuss the political and human rights situation in Cambodia. The following is an edited version of that interview.
RFA: Just briefly assess the status of human rights and democracy in Cambodia today.
Brad Adams: There’s no democracy in Cambodia, let’s be clear about that. [Prime Minister] Hun Sen has run a de facto one-party state for a long time. Elections have not been free and fair. The last elections were rigged in favor of the ruling party. We’ve never had since 1993 a free expression of the will of the Cambodian people at elections. We hope, in 2018 we will have free and fair elections, but right now the signs aren’t very good.
RFA: What are those signs and why are they so poor?
Brad Adams: Hun Sen and the CPP (Cambodian People’s Party) continue to harass, intimidate and attack the opposition. We have opposition MPs in prison. We have an opposition senator in prison. We have members of [the human rights group] ADHOC in jail. We have [opposition party Cambodia National Rescue Party president] exiled Sam Rainsy. We have had the threat to arrest [CNRP acting president] Kem Sokha. Even though there’s been a political deal recently, the opposition is under intense and constant pressure, and I don’t expect that to stop anytime soon. Unless, the international community takes a very strong stand.
RFA: But Hun Sen has said: “Don’t ever try to put pressure on me. It’s useless to put pressure on me…The more you pressure me, the more I don’t care.”
Brad Adams: You know, when someone’s under pressure they say that they don’t care about pressure. I think Hun Sen is saying that simply because he’s trying to give the impression he’s not under any pressure and he doesn’t care what the rest of the world thinks, but I’ve been following Cambodia since 1993. I lived there for many years, and I’ve seen Hun Sen bend to pressure on many occasions. I think pressure will work.
Brad Adams: The international community has a huge economic stake in Cambodia, it provides a huge amount of development assistance the country that the government depends on. Foreign direct investment is absolutely essential to the economy. Hun Sen has a need to pay thousands of soldiers who protect him and to keep all the oknhas [powerful business people] and all the members of parliament and everybody else financially happy. He cannot afford to have the economy run into the ground if the rest of the world decides they want to move their money elsewhere.
RFA: Has the current situation weakened to rule of law in Cambodia?
Brad Adams: For many years now we’ve seen that we don’t have the rule of law but the rule by law. By that I mean the rule of law means that everyone is treated equally under the law. Rule by law is when the government represses people by using the law. What we’ve seen…is that people who are just doing their job, who have committed no crime, were targeted by the government and punished for political reasons. We’ve seen that over and over again…That’s been a feature of Cambodia under Hun Sen, always.
RFA: Sam Rainsy has been exiled and convicted in the courts, does he get a pardon?
Brad Adams: This is a really hard decision for Hun Sen. I know that he thinks he made a mistake in allowing Sam Rainsy back in just weeks before the election in 2013. As we saw when Sam Rainsy returned, hundreds of thousands of people came to the streets, and it provided a lot of energy and excitement for the campaign. We know that the CNRP won that election despite the official count, we know the CNRP had more votes than the CPP. They should be in government today as the majority. Hun Sen, I think, is determined not to make that mistake again.
But, he has to balance that against the fact that if the leader of the opposition is outside of the country facing years in prison on fake charges, that the rest of the world will not consider this to be a legitimate election.
RFA: I Sam Rainsy is let back in, do you think it’ll be a free and fair election?
Brad Adams: No. We won’t have a free and fair election…Just to give you one example, there will not be equal access to state media, and that’s an essential part of any free and fair election. The people who work for the government will not be neutral. That’s an essential part of the election. We’ve seen generals, the military and the police go around the country and campaign for the ruling party. That is not acceptable as part of a free and fair election. We know the court system is not independent and impartial. If you go through the elements of a free and fair election they are all missing.