Cambodian authorities assured the United States’ ambassador to the country that it would abide by international refugee protocols, just two days before it broke its obligations and deported a group of Uighur asylum seekers to an uncertain future in China, according to documents leaked by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.
Details of Cambodia’s sudden U-turn, and the worriedbackroom consultations among the US Embassy, United Nations and Cambodian officials that preceded it, are contained in a series of diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks this month. The classified documents highlight how the United States and the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, were caught flat-footed in countering China’s influence in the lead-up to the controversial December 2009 deportation. And, say human rights observers, the cables cast a troubling spotlight on China’s ability to export its human rights agenda to developing countries like Cambodia.
The first Uighur asylum seeker to arrive in Cambodia came in May 2009. Another 21 Uighurs arrived in October and November. Members of the group, which included two children, fled China following clashes between security forces and demonstrators in July that year in Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Media reports suggest some of the Uighurs had witnessed the violence and feared prosecution if they were to be returned to China.
At first, the Uighurs maintained a low profile. But a December 3 report in The Washington Post publicized their presence in Cambodia. The ensuing media coverage, and the pending visit of a senior delegation from China, including Vice President Xi Jinping, alarmed officials at the US Embassy, the cables show.
Worries over China’s potential influence on the situation clouded a December 14 meeting between US Ambassador Carol Rodley and UNHCR officials, according to one leaked document.
‘The Ambassador urged immediate action on the Uighur cases…given the large official Chinese presence in Cambodia, the strong ties between the (Cambodian government) and government of China and the wide latitude for operation of Chinese agents in Cambodia,’ a cable dated the same day stated.
The cable suggests Cambodian officials, too, acknowledged some degree of pressure coming from Beijing. Giuseppe de Vincentis, then the UNHCR’s deputy regional representative in Thailand, reported that Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng told him his government was in a ‘difficult position due to pressure from outside forces’ — a reference Rodley interpreted as being China.
Still, in her own meeting with Sar Kheng, Rodley reported being told that Phnom Penh would protect the Uighur asylum seekers, and that preparations to conduct interviews to assess their refugee claims were underway, according to a December 17 cable.
But fears for the Uighurs’ safety proved valid. On the same day Rodley met with Sar Kheng, Cambodian authorities were already preparing to deport the Uighurs, the leaked cables suggest.
A long-standing agreement between the UNHCR and Cambodia meant that decisions on determining the refugee status of asylum seekers in Cambodia were jointly held by both parties. But a new sub-decree signed December 17, when the UNHCR was still attempting to arrange translators just to interview the Uighurs, assigned total control over status determinations to Cambodia. On what appears to be the same day that Sar Kheng assured Rodley the Uighurs would be given due process, Cambodia instead authorized their deportation.
The group of now 20 Uighurs — two had fled days earlier — were removed at gunpoint from a designated safe house on December 18. The next evening, an unscheduled charter jet lifted off from a Cambodian military airbase, located beside Phnom Penh’s international airport, with the 20 Uighurs on board. Ground crews at the airport told human rights observers at the time that the plane was a ‘V.I.P. plane to China,’ a December 21 cable summarizing the events stated.
Shortly after, the government announced China had offered $1.2 billion in bilateral aid — ‘more than the cumulative total of Chinese assistance over the past 17 years,’ Theodore Allegra, then the embassy’s chargé d’affaires, noted in a December 22 cable entitled ‘A Grateful China Rewards Cambodia.’
The cable noted that the aid offered by China, already Cambodia’s largest donor, easily eclipsed the individual sums pledged that year by other donor countries. The United States, for example, had promised $62 million in development assistance.
‘Chinese financial assistance to Cambodia provides a strong incentive for Cambodia to support Beijing’s policy objective,’ the cable stated in comments attributed to Allegra.
Rights groups say the episode is a glaring example that China is willing to pursue its human rights agenda beyond its own borders — and that it has the means to do it.
‘It shows a worrying inclination of the Chinese to take their human rights struggles and export them to other countries and expect governments like Cambodia to do their dirty work,’ says Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.
In the meantime, questions remain over how future asylum seekers will be treated.
Cambodia is a signatory to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its Interior Ministry remains in charge of final decisions on determining refugee status. But critics like Human Rights Watch maintain the Uighur issue shows that Cambodia can’t reliably wield such power.
‘It’s very worrisome that they’re basically willing to sign up to every single rights treaty you can imagine, and then implement almost next to nothing,’ Robertson says.
But a UNHCR spokeswoman says that determining refugee status is now entirely a Cambodian process.
‘It’s much like any other country that has signed the 1951 convention,’ says Kitty McKinsey, the UNHCR’s regional spokeswoman based in Bangkok. ‘We’re trying to make sure that the standards are met in refugee status determination. We advise in the process. We examine the process to make sure the standards are upheld. We look at the decisions and offer advice or critiques.’
For its part, the US Embassy in Phnom Penh customarily declines to answer questions related to the contents of leaked cables. In an e-mailed response to questions about the adequacy of Cambodia’s refugee determination process, embassy spokesman Mark Wenig said: ‘The United States applauds the Royal Government of Cambodia’s commitment to meeting its responsibilities as a party to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, including its ongoing development of a process for evaluating asylum claims.’
The fate of the deported Uighurs remains unclear. Both the UNHCR and the US Embassy in Phnom Penh say they don’t know the group’s whereabouts. But in a March 2011 report, Radio Free Asia cited unnamed sources to suggest that all but three were being held at a detention centre in Xinjiang’s Kashgar.
In the days following the 2009 deportations, Cambodian officials publicly blamed the UNHCR for its ‘slow’ response in processing the asylum seekers when it had the chance. The leaked cables show US and other diplomats met with UNHCR Regional Representative Raymond Hall for a ‘sober and frank’ assessment of what happened.
‘He…stated multiple times that, with the benefit of hindsight, UNHCR would have done things differently,’ Allegra wrote in a December 22 cable titled ‘Cambodia, UNHCR, and the Uighurs: The Madness of the Method.’
‘And though some in the group argued that it was foresight rather than hindsight that really mattered here, Hall appeared to be sincerely interested in doing whatever possible for the two remaining Uighur asylum seekers still unaccounted for.’
Rights groups now believe one of the two escaped asylum seekers has resettled in another country. But according to the Radio Free Asia report, the other Uighur asylum seeker was arrested in March 2010 in Laos, and repatriated to China.
Irwin Loy is a Phnom Penh-based writer. His articles have also appeared in publications including The Christian Science Monitor, The Guardian and CNN Traveller, among others.