Andy Howlett '10
By Andy Howlett
It’s been a long time since Cambodia has been at the forefront of the nation’s attention like it was in December of 1972, but, at least for an afternoon, the Law School community was focused on the Southeast Asian state as seven students from the Human Rights Study Project (HRSP) presented their findings from their trip there last January. The presentation took place last Thursday in Caplin Pavilion.
As a country, second-year student and director of HRSP Robin Freeman noted, Cambodia faces many challenges, including abject poverty, ethnic disparities, and a history of war. But Cambodia is also a nation with many assets, the most significant of which is its people, Freeman explained. “They are kind and respectful . . . and they are also curious and entrepreneurial . . . and most of all hopeful, a people who look forward to a future of opportunity rather than back toward their troubled past.”
Freeman conducted her research on people living with disabilities in Cambodia, which accounts for around 21 percent of the population. These people face serious discrimination from the government and from other Cambodians, Freeman discovered.
Focusing on a different group of discriminated Cambodians, second-year student Kathleen Doherty examined the status of some of Cambodia’s indigenous (i.e. non-Khmer) ethnic groups, who often have the highest rates of poverty and least access to education and healthcare. Doherty visited several remote areas in the country and concluded that many indigenous Cambodians were not even getting the minimal level of education that the rest of the country was getting. Doherty suggested that non-government organizations had drafted a blueprint for better schools, and it was “now up to the Cambodian government to do something about it.”
Second-year Zach Williams presented on “The Availability and Role of Legal Counsel to the Criminally Accused.” He concluded that many Cambodians lack access to a lawyer, especially during the “investigation phase” of proceedings against them, which in a civil law country like Cambodia carries a weightier significance. Reflecting on the experience, Williams noted that “lawyer jokes are popular in this society but we don’t know what it is like to live in a country where there is no one around to defend you . . . when the Khmer Rouge was finally forced from power there were only about ten attorneys left in Cambodia.”
Third-year student Dana Jupiter examined the causes and effects of the rampant commercial sex industry in Cambodia. A key problem is that, in a society where the line between voluntary prostitution and sexual slavery is blurry, there is too much of an emphasis on prosecution and not enough on victim’s rights. “Even though the commercial sex industry is legal, the sex workers themselves are stigmatized, and the general focus on prosecution of sex workers only exacerbates this,” said Jupiter.
Speaking of the criminal justice system, third-year Gabe Walters examined the tribunals that were trying members of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, which terrorized Cambodia in the late 1970s and killed millions. Walter’s research left him skeptical: “I question the court’s ability to achieve justice broadly,” he concluded. “I don’t think the court will be able to bring the closure, fairness, and justice that is desperately needed to heal this deeply traumatized society.”
Other HRSP students examined a wide variety of topics dealing with human rights in Cambodia: Second-year Guillermo Jover-Cataldi looked at the phenomenon of forced evictions in Cambodia which has “become a human rights issue through international covenants the Cambodia has signed.”
Second-year Kathleen Ho examined the connection between microfinancing and human rights. “The link lies in access to finance,” Ho explained. “Microfinancing equips the poor with the tools reduce their own vulnerability against the conditions of poverty,” and therefore simply providing access to microfinancing is not enough: it must be coupled with access to healthcare, education, and other resources.
Third-year Pamela McElroy looked at the situation of ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia and their access to citizenship rights. “I think that most Vietnamese living in Cambodia would be recognized as Cambodian citizens if they sought to be,” she said, “but this doesn’t really solve their problems if they are not being granted the same level of access to rights of citizenship.” The law in Cambodia denies many rights to ethnic Vietnamese in a discriminatory manner, and in violation of international agreements, she concluded.
Approximately 25 members of the Law School community attended the talk on a sunny Thursday afternoon, which was accompanied with an assortment of traditional Cambodian fare. The presentations were followed by a lengthy question-and-answer period during which the students discussed their experiences.