Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The price of peace

By Simon Taylor , of Global Witness.

Today marks the anniversary of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords - the agreement which signalled the beginning of the end of decades of violent conflict in Cambodia and the start of the biggest and most costly peacekeeping operation in history. Yet 16 years later, the country once regarded as the international poster-boy for post-conflict nation building is fast becoming South-East Asia's newest kleptocracy; its reputation marred by allegations of massive corruption, impunity, human rights abuses, and repressive, undemocratic governance. The international community - whose money has bankrolled this shattered state's rehabilitation - has singularly failed to stop the rot. Lessons must be learned if other fragile states are to avoid a similarly disastrous outcome.

On paper, Cambodia's natural resources and state assets - the land, forests, minerals and heritage sites - were the basis for kickstarting the post-conflict economy. The revenue generated should have gone towards poverty alleviation and rebuilding infrastructure. Instead, systematic and institutionalised corruption has deprived the entire population of the revenue that could have come from these public goods.

A cursory glance at today's Cambodian business sector reveals the country's forests, land, mining, ports, national buildings and casinos to be predominantly controlled by a handful of government-affiliated tycoons or family members of senior political figures. Information about deals is not made available to the Cambodian people to whom the state's resources belong. Similarly, consultation with local populations dependent upon forests or land is often non-existent. For many Cambodians, the first they know is the sound of a chainsaw revving or a bulldozer arriving to flatten their crops.

Cambodia's forests are a case in point. In the 1990s they were described by the World Bank as the country's "most developmentally important resource". Today they are largely degraded, having been sold off over the years by the political elite to private companies or individuals intent on logging as much as possible to turn a quick buck. Most of the vast wealth generated has not reached the national coffers: instead it appears to have been siphoned off into the private bank accounts of the loggers and their political patrons.

While a booming textile and tourism industry has resulted in double-digit economic growth in recent years, the reality is that Cambodians are still among the world's poorest people and wealth inequality is increasing. With an estimated 35% of the population living below the poverty line, and the vast majority without electricity or mains water, survival remains a challenge for millions. Meanwhile, government-sanctioned forced evictions and land grabs are rife, human rights violations are common, corruption is endemic and impunity is the norm. Over the past five years, this has been accompanied by a backward-slide in space for civil society and political opposition to operate, resulting in a governance system recently described by the UN rapporteur on human rights as "a shaky facade of democracy".

Cambodia's donors have provided the equivalent of over 50% of the government's annual budget for over a decade now. Having spent billions of dollars in setting up a democratic system in Cambodia, one would assume that donors and their domestic tax payers have an interest in preserving it. Yet the international donor community has consistently failed to bring the government to book for blatant violations of its commitments to protect human rights, fight corruption, and ensure the protection of natural resources. In the 1990s, turning a blind eye was justified by the need to ensure "stability". From stability would flow economic development, and from economic development would flow political pluralism. The past 16 years have revealed the impotence of such logic. With each successive failure of the donor community to deal with the regime's failure to honour commitments to good governance, those responsible have increased their wealth and impunity. The end result is that Cambodians find it harder and harder to call their government to account.

It is not too late for the international community to redefine its terms of engagement with Cambodia, but it will require a fundamental shift in mindset. At its core must be a recognition that stripping a country of its assets for personal gain represents a mass violation of the social and economic rights of its people. Next, donors must impose sanctions on those who they believe are corruptly profiteering from the exploitation of the state's resources. These measures should include a freeze on all assets, restrictions on international travel and a ban on doing business with nationals of the donor country.

This will be a bitter pill to swallow for those donors who would prefer to enjoy an amicable relationship with the Cambodian government. Yet, if the international community cannot get it right in a small and relatively non-strategic country such as Cambodia, what hope for the likes of Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo? To continue to give overseas aid without the courage to tackle blatant mass corruption and poor governance is the equivalent of pouring good money after bad. Worse, it confers a badge of approval and reinforces the legitimacy of a government which is not acting in the interests of its own population. Cambodia and its people deserve better.

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