Western Sydney University in late November hosted the ninth International Conference on Human Rights Education (ICHRE), attended by more than 380 delegates including scholars and speakers from 50 countries, focusing on a range of pedagogy and the implementation of human rights in post-conflict countries such as Colombia.

The conference was organized in conjunction with the 70th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), and the theme was “Unleashing the Full Potential of Civil Society.” Opening addresses were delivered by international experts, including the former UN Special Representative for Human Rights in Cambodia, Michael Kirby.

One of the keynote speakers was Dr Xanana Gusmão, the former president and prime minister of East Timor, who spoke on “Harvesting HR for Independence and Democracy.” This writer’s presentation was in stark contrast to Gusmão’s approach – targeting action as supposed to dialogue by highlighting a “Case Study: Can Australia Resuscitate HR and Democracy in Cambodia?”

As both countries were beneficiaries of UN peacekeeping missions – coupled with a rare encounter between Gusmão and this author – this is a timely opportunity to reflect on the successes and failures of the UN’s efforts in East Timor and Cambodia.

Gusmao Sawathey
Xanana Gusmão (left) and Sawathey Ek at the 9th ICHRE, Western Sydney University. Photo: Courtesy of Sawathey Ek

The United Nations’ efforts in both countries have changed the fate of their nations – one is now transformed into dictatorship and the other is democratic. In the aftermath of the UN interventions, one is led by a man known for being “utterly merciless and ruthless, without humane feelings,” while the other’s leader has been described as one of the “country’s great heroes throughout its post-colonial days, a man of the highest integrity.”

One mission successful, but the other failed

After the deployment of the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) in 2000, East Timor became a nation in 2002. A decade earlier, the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) brought an “end” to civil war between Cambodia and Vietnam through the implementation of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords.

Toward the early 2010s, East Timor successfully reformed its institutions, administrative governance and democratic system. However in Cambodia, UNTAC failed to take control of the bureaucracy and government administration from the prevailing leadership, resulting in the present dictatorship.

One of the areas that have been impacted by that failure is good governance and respect for rule of law. A recent report by the World Justice Project ranks Cambodia’s justice system as 112th out of 113 countries – with all eight major components surveyed, including the absence of corruption, criminal, civil justice, regulatory enforcement, fundamental rights and open government, scaled as second-last.

On corruption, a 2017 survey by Transparency International ranks East Timor in a healthier position than Cambodia, at 91st versus 161st.

There are some questions that must be addressed: How can East Timor be successful in its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) established by the UN while Cambodia has failed? How does the international community justify its recognition of an authoritarian regime when its creation should have been declared “illegitimate” pursuant to a Joint Statement of 45 nations in March?

Good leadership drives national pride

The simple answer to the first question lies in personal leadership. Gusmão leads East Timor with conscience while Hun Sen leads Cambodia with allegiance to outside powers.

Gusmão’s personal struggle for freedom was, to a certain degree, similar to that of the late Nelson Mandela, who once said, “In my country we go to prison first and then become president.” This would have to be slightly amended to apply in the case of Hun Sen, who has been in leadership since 1979: “In my country I ran to Vietnam first and then became prime minister. We rule with allegiance to Vietnam as our savior.”

For Gusmão, a former resistance leader, was imprisoned for refusing to surrender or to serve under Indonesia or any other foreign state. Upon being released in 2002, Gusmão became East Timor’s first president.

Gusmão’s experience while incarcerated influenced his leadership. Respect for freedom and human rights is reflected in his battle against foreign occupation. In general the people of East Timor have seen their humanity be respected by their leaders. Consequently, its leadership has escaped criticism from the international community, unlike Cambodia’s.

Cambodians’ aspirations and their fundamental human rights are restricted to the extent that they are only allowed to exercise them so long as it does not affect Hun Sen’s authority and allegiance to Vietnam. For freedom and human rights were not fought for by Hun Sen – they were given by Vietnam as his “savior” in exchange for allegiance, which did not happen in the case of Gusmão.

The claim that Hun Sen owes allegiance to Vietnam is well documented, including in a recent paper by Dr Stephen Heder titled “Cambodia-Vietnam: Special Relationship against Hostile and Unfriendly Forces.” Heder describes Hun Sen’s comments of bilateral policy with Vietnam as “lips and teeth,” involving the armed forces of the two countries engaging in ongoing cooperating to “fight common enemies,” giving special reference to the banning of the main opposition party by Hun Sen in 2017.

Unlike Gusmão, Hun Sen has a lot of titles, including “the blood-drenched opportunist of Asia.”

That is the price paid when a leader leads by allegiance. It is a never-ending debt repayment exclusive benefits for those being “saved” by Hun Sen who was in turn “saved” by Vietnam. Cambodia’s next authoritarians will follow the path of their forebears whose leadership will be forever recorded in history as a “criminal and thuggish regime.”

Real action vs ‘dialogue’

For the first time since the inception of the ICHRE, participants at the November event heard that “human rights” in Cambodia is merely paper concept, prohibited from going beyond classrooms and seminar sessions.

Some participants from Asia were alarmed at the extent of the problems. Representatives of Australian civil society expressed strong support for action that would see their country making an effort to hold the Hun Sen regime accountable to the international community, following the United Nations’ rehabilitating efforts since 1992.

In Cambodia, after 30 years under the current leadership, the answer is clear – the dialogue concept advocated by Gusmão is relevant and workable in every corner of the world, including East Timor. In fact it did work for Cambodia almost 27 years ago when the international community came together and signed the Paris Peace Accords.

Cambodia’s authoritarianism ‘illegitimate’

In the long term, there is a legitimate interest for the international community to pursue diplomatic sanctions against Cambodia’s regime and the UN to examine revoking the regime’s legitimacy.

The last action is merely to carry out a Joint Statement delivered by New Zealand on behalf of 45 nations last March, noting that for “the Cambodian government to retain its legitimacy, any elections must be free, fair and credible.”

Those words have yet to materialize given that at the time of the statement’s release, Hun Sen had already claimed the outright winner of the election. The international community continues to “retain the legitimacy” of the current regime, contrary to the statement. It is going to be hard for Hun Sen and his regime to be law-abiding rulers when the international community has so far failed to live up to its own demands.

The only practical solution, as Petras Austrevicius, a member of the European Parliament, reportedly said a year ago: “We should have learned the lesson: only words do not and will not work with the Cambodian government. We must take action.”

It is clear that the fate of both countries is being influenced by the style of their leaderships, and not the United Nations. A nation is prosperous and successful when its leaders lead with conscience and not allegiance. For  leadership based on conscience creates history but allegiance brings misery.

The UN can provide forces and money but not conscience. Nor can conscience be destroyed, not even by the Khmer Rouge. But when conscience can be traded off with allegiance, the end result is what we see in Cambodia, served by and for dictators with humanity and their aspirations exclusively granted only to strengthen its kleptocratic patronage system.