The Debate | Opinion

Japanese ‘Magnitsky Law’ Would Send a Strong Message to Cambodia’s Hun Sen

A Japanese Magnitsky law would allow Tokyo to develop a distinctive Asian voice on human rights and democracy.

Japanese ‘Magnitsky Law’ Would Send a Strong Message to Cambodia’s Hun Sen

Supporters of the disbanded Cambodia National Rescue Party at a protest in Phnom Penh, October 23, 2013.

Credit: Flickr/Jacqui Collis

The creation of a cross-party group of Japanese lawmakers to establish a Japanese version of the Magnitsky Act creates the opportunity for an Asian response to the human rights violations in Cambodia.

Those involved include former Defense Minister Nakatani Gen of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Yamao Shiori of the opposition Democratic Party for the People, as well as members from ruling coalition partner Komeito and the opposition Nippon Ishin party.

That broad base of support for Magnitsky type legislation sends a strong signal in a political culture where consensus is paramount. The global trend towards adopting Magnitsky laws, which allow countries to freeze the assets of and impose travel bans on those who violate human rights, has left free world countries reluctant to be left behind. The European Union adopted a framework for imposing Magnitsky sanctions in December, and Britain has started using its own legislation by imposing penalties on Russian and Saudi nationals. An Australian parliamentary committee in December recommended the country adopt its own legislation.

Japan has a long and proud record of contributing to Cambodia’s peace-building and reconstruction. Between 1992 and 2018, Japan gave $2.8 billion in official development funding to Cambodia. It might reasonably ask itself whether the abuses committed by the regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen, which has banned the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and arrests its opponents arbitrarily, are a satisfactory result for all the time and money spent.

The signals from Tokyo on Hun Sen’s decision to demolish any pretense at democracy by forcing through the dissolution of the CNRP have shifted. Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu visited Cambodia in August, saying that “Japan will continue to provide support so that Cambodia can walk the path of its democratic development by incorporating youth strength as a pillar.” Youth, of course, is the demographic constituency where the CNRP enjoys its strongest support. Those who are old and fearful of Hun Sen’s Khmer Rouge past are the least likely to voice support for democratic politics in Cambodia.

Cambodia has always looked up to Japan, in awe of the post-war economic miracle that we have never been able to achieve. Respect for political opponents and allowing them to express their views, of course, were always part of the Japanese way.

Cambodia in the early 1990s was the first arena since World War Two where Japan sought to play an independent international political role, with considerable success. Tokyo had previously restricted itself to trying to resolve conflicts through support for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The Japanese diplomat Akashi Yasushi led the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). Japanese diplomacy played a key part in the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991 and in creating conditions for the democratic elections in Cambodia in 1993.

Today, it is strongly in Japan’s strategic interests to limit aggressive Chinese expansionism, for which Cambodia has allowed itself to become a willing satellite. Hun Sen’s strategy has been to play China and Japan off against each other to secure maximum financial help from both. Japan’s support for the Cambodian election in 2018, in which the Cambodian People’s Party won all 125 National Assembly seats in the absence of any opposition, has done nothing to restrict China’s influence in Cambodia. There is no way that Japan can outspend China in an attempt to wield influence over Hun Sen. Magnitsky legislation would give Japan a way to escape that competition, and develop a distinctive Asian voice on human rights and democracy.

The early signs from the new U.S. administration of President Joe Biden are of multilateral re-engagement on international problems. This global re-engagement as yet lacks a strong Asian partner. The Magnitsky initiative gives Japan the chance to take that role. As the military coup in Myanmar and the re-detainment of Aung San Suu Kyi show, such an Asian voice is now needed more urgently than ever.

Magnitsky legislation would give Japan a new lever with which to influence the Hun Sen regime. Even hinting that it might use such a law against human rights violators in Cambodia would have a psychological effect beyond that which the West can achieve. Hun Sen’s usual line of bluster in dismissing Western criticism of his atrocious human rights record would be disarmed if faced with an admired Asian partner which has spent billions over decades to try to rebuild the country.

Sam Rainsy is the co-founder and interim leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).