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Cambodian International Donors Pledge $690 Million in Aid

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Cambodia’s international donors pledged $690 million in aid at an annual meeting on 20 June 2007. This pledge comes at a critical juncture when rights groups are demanding that donors ought to apply more pressure on the Cambodian government for the widespread abuse of human rights and unchecked corruption in the country.
As of yesterday, Cambodia’s international donors pledged $690 million in aid for 2007. According to the senior Finance Ministry official, Hang Choun Naron, the 15 per cent increase from the previous year is a “reward for Cambodia’s good performance over the last year”, both in its governance and economic reforms.1 International donors from 18 countries and five intergovernmental organizations including Japan, Germany, the United States, the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank attended the annual meeting, held from 19 to 20 June in Phnom Penh. The meeting, called by the Cambodia Development Cooperation Forum (CDCF) formerly known as the Consultative Group (CG), was held to discuss proposals for the country’s development trajectory2.

Prior to the meeting, there was widespread criticism from human rights and environmental organisations, accusing the government of having repeatedly failed in its promises to control corruption and the abuse of power. The groups pressed the donors to combat corruption among government officials as a stipulation to the aid. Despite the average 11.4 percent economic growth in the last three years, the government has failed to make any progress in the past decade on key pledges to donors regarding improvising the rule of law and judicial independence. Illegal logging and land grabbing backlog cases remain, which hamper the efforts to combat corruption and impunity due to a lack of ‘checks and balances’ on the government’s work3.

“We would like the donors to link the aid to the improvement of respect of human rights, rule of law, principal of democracy… we would like to see the result of the problem of land grabbing. How about the democratic space for Cambodian people – can they demonstrate peacefully? Can they have access to information and have freedom of expression?” asked Kek Galabru, the president of the Cambodian human rights group LICADHO4.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a statement5 before the CDCF meeting on 15 June, demanding that donors apply more pressure on the government to ensure it meets its pledges, and that donors avoid accepting any more empty promises regarding human rights, the rule of law and good governance. “Donors have a major role to play in determining Cambodia’s future by continuing their assistance to civil society and insisting that the government fully comply with commitments made at successive donor meetings dating back to 1993. After billions of dollars of donor support over the past 14 years, it is time for a clear and unambiguous signal to be sent to the government. Donors should make it clear that they can no longer accept previously unmet promises”, said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW.

In the meeting, the Cambodian government promised to spend the money on education, health care, improvement of infrastructure, rural development and agriculture. Prime Minister Hun Sen also promised to fight corruption and adopt the anti-corruption law – a high priority for the donors– which Hun Sen has repeatedly promised to adopt. He told donors that the government has already established a committee to handle anti-corruption work. Seven government officials, for example, were punished for illegal logging and 11 were jailed over cutting forestry illegally in Ratanakiri province6. This information, however, has not been reported in the media, so the accuracy cannot be confirmed. So far, the Prime Minister has not indicated when the National Assembly will debate the anti-corruption bill. He also promised that the oil revenues from the recent oil discovery in Cambodia’s offshore would be managed “efficiently, transparently and accountably”.7

However, the recent banning of Global Witness (GW) report8 on illegal logging by Cambodia’s elite, including the Prime Minister, as well as issues of tax evasion, bribery, kidnapping and attempted murder earlier this month indicate the government’s “lack of commitment to freedom of expression and public debate, and its continued thuggish behaviour,” said Brad Adams. In his statement, Adams also called upon the donors to pressure the government to undertake a credible judicial investigation into the criminal activities detailed in the report. Although the government promised to investigate the corruption, there has been no follow up.

On 12 June 2007, the UN Secretary General Special Representative for Human Rights in Cambodia presented his report at the 5th Human Rights Council (HRC) session. He discussed several systematic human rights abuses in the country – including the lack of independent and transparent judiciary, impunity, and land grabbing9. Although he acknowledged the improvements in access to health and education and the impressive economic growth, he noted that economic growth has aggravated the problem of poverty in Cambodia where the gap between the rich and poor is growing at an alarming rate.

The Cambodian delegate dismissed the content of the report claiming that it “did not reflect the real situation” in the country. The delegate also stated that Cambodia will no longer accept Professor Ghai’s mandate in the country and asked the Secretary-General to reconsider the Special Representative’s appointment to the position10. This response is yet another setback for the country in its fight against corruption and its move towards the protection and promotion of human rights. However, the HRC recently released new rules that require all member states to have their rights records scrutinized, and Cambodia remains on the Council’s list of states meriting special scrutiny11

International donors themselves have repeatedly criticized and expressed concern over epidemic corruption and demanded that the government fight corruption and strengthen human rights without threatening to stop funding. Instead, they agreed to award the country by increasing more aid this year.

The donors’ list of conditions has remained the same for some time now, but the government continues to ignore them. Now that they are to receive more aid, donors need to assert that they will not accept any more unmet promises, because as Adams says, the Prime Minister will again “run in circles around the donors, making the same empty promises every year and laughing all the way to the bank”.

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