For the past weeks, US President Barack Obama’s visit to Cambodia has drawn many expectations from Cambodian citizens and human rights advocates. It was never clear though whether the president would raise human rights issues during his bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen. Thankfully, he did. Prior to his arrival and since the day he was reelected, victims of illegal evictions have been protesting in Phnom Penh to ask the U.S  for help.

Barack Obama

U.S. President Barack Obama walks to his seat at the East Asia Summit at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday. Pic: AP.

Last week, Human Rights Watch told The Washington Post,““We’ve been yelling at the White House for a month and a half that [Obama] shouldn’t go because the human rights situation in Cambodia is so bad.”  Last week eight people were arrested for “national security” reasons after they painted “S.O.S” messages and displayed Obama’s pictures on the roof of their house around the airport to draw his attention.

A dialogue of the deaf on human rights

It was the first time a sitting U.S President visited the country and he “spoke for no less than 10 seconds before the last of the reporters had been herded out“, including Obama’s own press pool, according to the daily newspaper The Phnom Penh Post. According to U.S. deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, President Obama devoted his entire meeting on human rights issues and particularly about the need for free and fair elections. Prior to his arrival, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan spoke to the press. The Cambodia Daily reports that Mr. Siphan believed that Obama will learn from Cambodia: “I think that Obama, what he learned [is] from the book in school. But we Cambodians, started over here, so Obama will learn real experience in the field [about] democracy and human rights developing in this country.”

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen stressed that his country still had a better human rights record than some of his regional partners. According to the Cambodia daily, the Prime Minister said that reports on land evictions were “overblown”, that “politics in the country is wide open” and that there are “no political prisoners”.

According to Phay Siphan, there is an ASEAN “human rights quality” that cannot be susbsituted by importing from the U.S.

ASEAN human rights quality

On Sunday, the 10 leaders from the ASEAN countries adopted a controversial human rights declaration. It is the first time that ASEAN adopted such a text. For Mr. Pa Ngoun Teang, director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, “it is sometimes better not to adopt anything rather than a text that worsens the situation”. Although this declaration is not binding for any country, “some states may use it as the foundation of people’s rights, when it is not binding and at a lower standard than international law,” according to Ou Virak, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

On November 19, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay  expressed concern that the new ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD), retains language that is not consistent with international standards. “The international human rights mechanisms will continue to hold ASEAN member states to their international obligations and encourage ASEAN to strengthen further its regional human rights framework,” Pillay said.