Soeung Saroeun

3 October, 2017

The International Civic Forum: from Washington DC to Cambodia

This contribution by a participant of the International Civic Forum puts into context how insights from the Forum are relevant for local civil society in Cambodia, and what specific areas must be prioritised to defend people’s rights to participate in a country where civic space is rapidly shrinking before our eyes.

Between 11- 12 September, I had the opportunity to participate in International Civic Forum, held in Washington D.C., USA, with 68 leaders from civil society organisations, representatives from government, media and the private sector across the globe. It was an interesting and important forum where good topics, speakers and processes were deployed. Participants shared stories of how civic rights are being dramatically threatened, causing global concern for the gradual “shrinking” of space worldwide. This has been happening not only in the countries ruled by authoritarian governments or dictators, but also by populist politicians and within democracies.

Many governments around the world use legal frameworks, and actions such as harassment, intimidation, imprisonment and killing to silence civil society leaders, media, political activists, trade unionists, environmentalists, and many others.

The country that I come from, Cambodia, was discussed at the Forum as a case study of shrinking civic space. Participants agreed that urgent collective attention is needed as the situation in Cambodia is of serious concern.

Throughout August and early September 2017, the Government of Cambodia took drastic actions, shutting down more than 20 radio stations, an English newspaper (called Cambodia Daily), an American CSO (National Democracy Institute-NDI), and Situation Room (a group of more than 40 CSOs working on election monitoring) to name just a few. The ‘justification’ for these actions (given by the government) is a breach of the much disputed “Law on Association and Non Governmental Organisations” (LANGO), and Tax Law as well as other related laws. In addition, the President of the main opposition party, who holds parliamentary immunity, was arrested for “treason” in plotting with a foreign American force to topple the government.

It is within this context that I believe the International Civic Forum is beneficial for all countries in the world and especially all sectors – government, philanthropy, media, civil society and the private sector. The promotion of multi-stakeholder engagement to defend civic space and solidarity support from the international community are the most useful and applicable for Cambodia’s current situation.

Promoting Multi-Stakeholder Engagement

Cambodians have experienced several decades of tragedy; therefore, the issue of trust is one of the main concerns amongst Cambodian leaders. Although individual actor-government, private sector and civil society- has increased their capacity and other resources in contributing to the development of country, but Cambodia really needs to have a mechanism where representative(s) from all sectors can continuously debate both at a political/strategic level and an operational level. I’ve learned from the International Civic Forum that each stakeholder has their own interests and resources that can significantly contribute to a sustainable and democratic country.

I learned that local civil society organisations have been playing a very active role in promoting more robust multi-stakeholder engagement by first trying to forge harmony and solidarity amongst actors in different forums.

I also recognised that the international community, especially development and corporate partners, would be able to—and should—promote these alliances through their aid and trade (especially through the supply chain mechanism). In Cambodia, a multi-stakeholder initiative comprised of representatives from all sectors of society could lead to another level of sustainable and democratic development.

International Community Solidarity Support

The 1991 Paris Peace Accord (PPA) on Cambodia and its annexes, signed by UN agencies, 18 signatory countries, and other members of the international community aims to;

1) end war and bring peace,

2) promote and protect human rights,

3) promote democracy through free and fair elections,

4) build an independent and sovereign state, and

5) reconstruct and rehabilitate socio-economic spheres for Cambodia.

It is precisely the right time that the UN, signatory countries and international community should reactivate the spirits of PPA. They should work together to assess the progress that has been made over the past 26 years, identify shortcomings, and define key strategies/actions to be taken to ensure that all commitments in the PPA are effectively and successfully delivered. This is especially important to protect against the return of our dark history where more than 3 million people were killed during 1970s and 1980s.

One of the immediate actions needed is for signatory countries to call for a political negotiation between the ruling party and the opposition party as soon as possible in order to address the current situation and to promote a free and fair national election, due to be held in late July 2018.

The enabling environment for pre, during, and post national election must be guaranteed by both parties and the objective international community so that the citizens can freely vote to choose the right leader for their country. It is in my belief that the International Civic Forum is playing an important role and can be the Forum to mobilise international leaders to reactivate the spirits of PPA. If this can be achieved, then Cambodia may not be seen as a country where civic space is shrinking before our very eyes, but instead it can be seen as positive example to other countries facing similar challenges.

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