February 05, 2018

Mr HAYES (FowlerChief Opposition Whip) (18:09): I also rise to speak about the deteriorating human rights situation in Cambodia. With the upcoming national elections this year, many groups and individuals have been subjected to extreme intimidation by the government simply for exercising their right to peaceful assembly and political expression on matters relating to government policy. Most recently, Prime Minister Hun Sen has directed the Interior Minister shut down the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights. This all appears to be linked to the politically motivated prosecution of opposition leader Kem Sokha and the dissolution of the main opposition party by the Cambodian Supreme Court. To put this in perspective, I'd quote the analogy used by Elaine Pearson, the Australian Director of Human Rights Watch: 'It would be like Bill Shorten being exiled, Tanya Plibersek put in jail, the High Court dissolving the Labor Party and every Labor MP barred from holding office for a period of five years.'

I've been made aware of these serious and ongoing attacks against freedom and democracy in Cambodia by many concerned Australian-Cambodians living in my electorate. They've shared with me the story of their struggles when they were forced to flee their homeland during the period of the Khmer Rouge in the seventies and eighties. Now, once again, they fear the rise and excesses of an autocratic government. Sawathey Ek, a lawyer and Cambodian community leader, succinctly captures the spirit and concerns of the Cambodian-Australians regarding the re-emergence of a one-party state when he says: 'There are now similarities with the justice system under Pol Pot, where there was no independent judicial processes. The courts merely do the bidding of the dictator these days, that of Hun Sen.' This is a major setback to democracy and human rights in Cambodia, and clearly designed to reinforce the autocratic rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen. The valued and principled work of the international community in the lead-up to the Paris Peace Accords is systemically being unravelled as Cambodia heads towards, once again, being an autocratic state. Professor Gareth Evans, formerly Australia's foreign affairs minister and one of the principal architects of the Paris Peace Accords, has emphasised the need for action to be taken on an international scale, saying: 'Cambodia is at peace in the sense that a civil war is over, but it is a bit of a wasteland so far as any kind of adherence to democratic and human rights principles are concerned.'

These recent developments in Cambodia are not happening in a vacuum but are accompanied by a broad-based crackdown by the government against any critical or independent voices. This includes the closure of the fiercely independent newspaper The Cambodian Daily and various radio stations that happened to broadcast Radio Free Asia or Voice Of America. In speaking about the scale of Hun Sen's crackdown on freedom and democracy, Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said:

The prime minister is showing his fear not only of free elections, but of free expression and association.

In order to address the deteriorating human rights situation in Cambodia and to allow an environment of free and fair elections, Australia needs to take an active role as part of a very concerned international community. I think there's a certain imperative to this, given that Australia is and remains a major aid donor to Cambodia. Given our seat on the UN Human Rights Council, Australia should play a forthright role as we develop closer economic ties with countries in the Asia-Pacific. We should use our influence to enhance human rights and to promote genuine democratic principles, which, in turn, quite frankly, can help open up new economic opportunities for these countries and improve the lives of their people.

I'd like to conclude on the words used by Gareth Evans at the signing of the Paris Peace Accords when he said:

Peace and freedom are not prizes which, once gained, can never be lost. … Their foundations must be sunk deep into the bedrock of political stability, economic prosperity and above all else, the observance of human rights.

As part of a concerned international community, we do have a role to play in this, and we certainly do need to voice the views of all those Cambodian-Australians who we have the honour to represent.