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Why the US Must Forgive Cambodia's War Debt

 
 

Having both spent several years investigating and exposing human rights violations in Cambodia, we are no particular fans of the country’s government.

The human rights situation remains disturbing and has deteriorated markedly over the last couple of years – in law and practice – as the nervy ruling party prepares for commune and national elections later this year and in 2018 respectively.

Several human rights defenders remain in jail, while opposition leader Sam Rainsy has been officially exiled – all victims of the politicized courts. Protests are no longer tolerated, while impunity continues for unlawful killings – including of political activist Kem Ley, shot dead last year.

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In a paper entitled “To Tell the Truth,” the Cambodian government last week lashed out at foreign critics of its human rights record, accusing them of a “campaign of disinformation” and alleging a “hidden political agenda.”

While the paper’s rebuttals and justifications for the numerous human rights concerns are weak, it does strike a chord in recalling the West’s disastrous history in Cambodia.

It refers to the United States’ carpet bombing of Cambodia in the early 1970s in the context of the Vietnam War, and the aid and trade embargo against the country throughout the 1980s (during which the United States and other governments continued to recognize Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge as Cambodia’s legitimate government).

The paper’s release follows other pointed moves by the Cambodian government to distance itself from the United States, including its cancellation of joint military exercises and repeated calls on the United States to cancel the Vietnam War era debt that it still claims from Cambodia.

Dirty Debt

This “dirty debt,” as Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen brands it, amounts to around $500 million including interest and arises from loans taken to buy agricultural commodities from the United States in the early 1970s to feed and clothe those displaced by war and bombing.

Some argue that the United States should use this debt as leverage to demand human rights reforms.

But this approach has not succeeded so far and, instead, may be undermining the United States’ influence in Cambodia at a time when China has forgiven loans and is providing more aid.

Further, in our view, it would be unconscionable for the United States to use the “dirty debt” to try to bargain for human rights reforms, and would risk damaging its reputation in the eyes of the Cambodian people – two wrongs don’t make a right.

Indeed, the debt issue is a distraction from the important role the United States is playing with the European Union and others in supporting the development of Cambodia, including funding and capacity building for civil society organizations involved in human rights promotion and protection work.

Time to Forgive

The moral case for cancelling the debt is clear – Cambodia took the loan from the United States during the Vietnam War to feed and clothe some of the very people that American carpet bombing had displaced.

That same bombing killed at least tens-of-thousands of people, destroyed Cambodia’s agricultural system (meaning the country was unable to feed its own people) and indirectly contributed to the rise of the Khmer Rouge and the millions of deaths that followed.

There is also a possible legal case against the debt, which has so far received little attention – the circumstances around the debt were so perverse, so unfair as to arguably make the debt “inequitable” under international law.

In our view, the United States should try to draw a line over this chapter in its history and show leadership by forgiving the debt – as it has done with Iraq and other countries.

A compromise, looking to the resolution of Vietnam’s own war-time debt for example, could see an agreement to write-off some of the debt while channeling remaining debt repayments to support Cambodia’s development – a “debt swap.”

One suggestion in this regard, coming back to the current human rights situation in Cambodia, would be to use such repayments to create a new long term fund to bolster the country’s embattled human rights activists and wider civil society.

Ou Virak (@ouvirak) is the  Cambodian-American founder and director of the Future Forum think tank and previously headed the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. Rupert Abbott (@RupertBAbbott) is a human rights lawyer and was previously deputy Asia-Pacific director at Amnesty International, where he led research on Southeast Asia. They are co-founders of RightsStart, a firm that designs, builds and supports human rights initiatives and organizations.

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