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Human Rights Watch takes a hatchet to history

The Cambodia Herald - January 18, 2015

Allen Myers, Phnom Penh Just before the 30th anniversary of Hun Sen's first becoming prime minister of Cambodia, Human Rights Watch produced a 75-page attack on him. Perhaps the strangest thing about the HRW document was the amount of attention it received in the English-language media.

HRW attacking Hun Sen is the kind of story that editors call "dog bites man"; it's not news because that's what dogs do.

HRW has been attacking Hun Sen for as long as can be remembered by anyone who cares. The latest attack adds little or nothing of substance to the earlier attacks. The editors who regarded the latest HRW diatribe as newsworthy must be very young or have very short memories.

They, or their journalists assigned to treat the document as something serious, must also have very limited critical skills, because they don't seem to have noticed a great many pointers that suggest that HRW's "report" is not an objective summary of reality but a propaganda extravaganza.

Back to the Cold War

One of these pointers is the quite public history of HRW. It is very much a product of the Cold War, having been set up in the US in 1978 as "Helsinki Watch" to publicise real or otherwise violations of human rights in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Helsinki Watch proved so useful for US interests that similar "Watches" for the Americas, Asia, Africa and the Middle East were created. Eventually they were all amalgamated into Human Rights Watch in a process so smooth that it alone was proof they were all part of the same operation from the beginning.

HRW today claims that it does not accept funding from any government. There is no way for any outside observer to know whether or not that is true, and it hardly matters. HRW is openly funded by rich people, most of whom would not have so much spare cash if the US government made them pay taxes even at the same rate as much less wealthy citizens, let alone at progressive rates.

In particular, currency speculator George Soros, who became a multi-billionaire by capitalising on the 1997 financial crisis that impoverished governments and millions of poor people in Asia,1 is giving HRW $10 million a year for 10 years. Soros is well known for his hostility to any remnants of the formerly socialist regimes in Eastern Europe and the rest of the world.

The HRW document's author is Brad Adams, HRW's Asia director. This would not be a surprise to anyone familiar with Adams or HRW. During his five years in Cambodia (1997-2002), Adams was notorious for his hatred of the CPP in general and of Hun Sen in particular, and the HRW document betrays this hatred from the first page not even pretending to be objective.

For a start, some intern in HRW went through probably scores of films a frame at a time to find the most grotesque facial expression of Hun Sen possible to decorate the cover of HRW's attack document. Then, just in case readers are too stupid to realise what is intended by the still from a video, the title declares: "30 Years of Hun Sen: "Violence, Repression, and Corruption in Cambodia".

Did anything besides violence, repression and corruption happen in Cambodia during the last 30 years? For example, was a civil war ended? Has there been significant reconstruction of infrastructure? Are there now thousands more schools than there were 30 years ago? Were the top leaders of the Khmer Rouge who destroyed Cambodian society in the late 1970s brought to trial? Is there a booming domestic and international tourist trade showing millions of people the glories of Cambodia's ancient civilisation? Has the country's per capita GDP increased from well under one dollar a day to more than $1000 a year? Is Cambodia in "danger" of moving out of the category of "least developed countries" very soon?

Don't ask: in this document, anything that has gone wrong in Cambodia since 1985 or even earlier is Hun Sen's fault. In it, nothing good has happened, but if it did, it was due to someone outside the CPP, and Hun Sen was opposed to it.

Repeat offender

The first Brad Adams falsification about Hun Sen that I can recall coming across occurred in 2002, when Adams persuaded the Phnom Penh Post to accept a major article supposedly based on what Adams called an "official" Thai government document which it obviously was not. I pointed out the falsity of that document in the following issue of the Post (https://letters2pppapers.wordpress.com/archives/pre-2005/a-dubious-document-and-kr-trials/) and have done so several times since then, but Adams has never publicly explained or defended his article.

The current document is no more honest, although its falsifications are usually not quite as blatant as the 2002 Post effort. It would be tedious and unnecessary to go through them all one at a time, but I will cite a few characteristic examples.

Adams does his best to blame Hun Sen for every problem that arose in the K5 program, the unsuccessful attempt in the mid-1980s to build a barrier along the border to prevent Khmer Rouge attacks from Thailand. A particularly damning accusation that Hun Sen friends and subordinates were given improper exemptions from participating is cited as coming from Kong Korm in a 1999 interview with Adams.

Adams describes Kong Korm as "deputy minister of foreign affairs at the start of K5 and later appointed minister of foreign affairs in 1987". It certainly sounds like Adams has the goods here: a former CPP government official pointing the finger at Hun Sen. Except that Adams forgot to record one little detail: at the time of the interview, Kong Korm was an official and a senator for the Sam Rainsy Party (he is still a CNRP senator). "A senator from the SRP said..." doesn't sound as convincing as "A former [CPP] foreign minister said...".

For his chapter "Hun Sen and PRK Repression in the 1980s", Adams again knows how to select his sources. In this case, they sound more reliable: two publications, one by Amnesty International and one by the US Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. Only in passing, near the end of gruesome tales of torture and unjust persecution, does Adams mention that the two organisations conducted their interviews "on the Thailand-Cambodia border" a euphemism meaning that they occurred in camps controlled by the Khmer Rouge, not exactly an encouraging setting for impartial research on the government in Phnom Penh.

Sometimes, Adams dispenses with evidence entirely, simply asserting as fact something that is questionable at best. For instance, he says that the 1998 elections "were neither free nor fair" without citing any source whatsoever for this judgment probably because the main international observer groups disagreed with him.2

In regard to the 2003 election, he says that "the election process was denounced by European Union and other monitors" but provides no references that would allow a check on what these monitors actually said, how many of them said it and so on. The Australian government's ABC Radio, reporting on 30 July 2003, said of the election: "International election monitors... say they're ?reasonably satisfied' that the poll was free and fair..."

The most recent election is given similar but more extensive treatment: a series of sweeping assertions not backed up by any citations whatsoever.

For example, Adams asserts that the elections were "widely condemned as neither free nor fair by domestic and international monitoring groups" without mentioning that Sam Rainsy campaigned to dissuade potential monitors from observing the election3 and without disclosing that the monitors from the International Conference of Asian Political Parties (ICAPP) and the Centrist Asia Pacific Democrats International (CAPDI) described the elections as "free, fair and transparent, and, above all, peaceful, non-violent and smooth". He describes the voter list as "marred by CPP-orchestrated fraud and other irregularities", again without citing any specifics or evidence, without mentioning that the opposition boycotted the voter registration process so that it could complain about it later and without hinting at the existence of the procedures available to anyone to challenge the inclusion or exclusion of any name on the voter list.

Adams' distortions about the establishment and functioning of the ECCC to try senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge and those most responsible for its worst crimes are grotesque and will be easily identified by anyone familiar with the reality. As in Adams' presentation of other events, any delay or problem is the fault of Hun Sen, and any faltering step forward is the result of some non-Cambodian overcoming Hun Sen's resistance.

This approach is completely in line with another fact that Adams forgets to tell his readers. From the beginning, HRW was opposed to the creation of a tribunal in Cambodia, demanding one in The Hague, in which Cambodians would have participated only as defendants or witnesses. This is an additional reason, in addition to attacking Hun Sen, for Adams to misrepresent the real history of the ECCC.

Here I will cite just one instance which Adams could have learned easily enough if he ever talked to people who weren't interested in besmirching Hun Sen. Adams writes that, when the ECCC convened, the Cambodian judges "prolonged negotiations to establish the court's internal working rules, further delaying the start of proceedings".

Typically (see the final section of this article), the "source" for this assertion is a December 2006 HRW press release. What really happened was that, well in advance of the July 2006 meeting of the judges, the Cambodian government task force for the trials enlisted a US legal scholar to study Cambodian criminal procedure and the rules of major international war crimes trials and prepare draft rules for the ECCC based on those texts. On reading it, one of the international judges proposed adopting that draft provisionally and then going through it to modify it as necessary. Unfortunately, other international judges objected and insisted on writing new rules from scratch. The resulting delay of a year was in no way due to the Cambodian judges.

The "further" delay in getting the ECCC under way that Adams refers to occurred because a Cambodian national election was held in 2003, shortly after the agreement to establish the ECCC was signed with the UN. After the election, the SRP and Funcinpec boycotted the new National Assembly, which did not meet for more than a year and therefore could not ratify the agreement. Adams doesn't mention this fact, presumably because it is hard to blame on Hun Sen.

(It may be relevant that another Soros-funded organisation, the Open Society Justice Initiative, has been extremely critical and obstructive of the ECCC's functioning.)

Peculiar 'evidence'

When Adams does cite sources, it is not much of an improvement. If we leave aside the executive summary, which has no footnotes, and the first 15 or so pages of the report, which are concerned with pre-1979 events and thus irrelevant to Hun Sen's years as prime minister, the document contains 122 footnotes appearing to cite evidence for Adams' accusations.

These citations are often not what they seem at first glance. For example, there is a footnote to Adams' assertion that the bodyguard unit Brigade 70 is "notorious" for a "litany" of misdeeds. But that footnote only cites the government sub-decree that established the brigade; it says nothing about any evidence of misdeeds. A discussion of alleged internal divisions in the CPP in 1994 cites only a Rasmei Kampuchea report of the appointment of Hok Lundy as head of the National Police.

Even more problematic are the numerous citations (46 out of the 122) that refer to HRW or Adams himself. A dozen of these citations are of interviews conducted by Adams. As we have seen, he is not a critical and perceptive interviewer or a reliable reporter on any matter connected with Hun Sen.

There are four further interviews listed as conducted by HRW, not giving the name of the interviewer. Their quality may perhaps be judged by this example. Footnote 190 is cited in support of the statement: "CPP-controlled courts [in 1998] filed politically motivated prosecutions against SRP members on trumped-up charges of attempting to kill the prime minister". The note reads in its entirety: "Human Rights Watch interview with Cambodian judicial officers, Phnom Penh, September 23, 2014."

Think about that: judicial officers told HRW that "courts" deliberately filed false charges against SRP members. There are three possibilities here. One is that the "judicial officers" themselves were involved in the false charges. Why they would decide to confess to HRW 16 years later is not apparent. The second possibility is that they had no first-hand knowledge of the case(s) but were repeating something they had heard. That would make their testimony irrelevant at best, unless they had heard it directly from other judicial officers who were involved in the "trumping-up", and it would again raise the question of why anyone would come clean only to HRW so long after the fact. The third possibility is that Adams and/or HRW aren't giving us an accurate account, or are retelling the testimony of unreliable witnesses.

Adams doesn't tell his readers, but that passage from the document is apparently a reference to the 24 September 1998 rocket attack on Hun Sen's motorcade in Siem Reap. I don't know whether the police succeeded in finding the real culprits, but the attack itself was certainly not trumped up: it killed a young boy and wounded three other people; foreign bomb disposal experts found three other rockets that failed to fire because they had been soaked by heavy rain (New York Times, 26 September 1998).

'It must be true: we said it'

At least 28 of these citations of "evidence" in fact refer to previous documents of HRW. Fifteen refer to HRW's annual World Reports. These contain no evidence, but are merely summaries of the views of HRW officials (presumably including Brad Adams); those views may or may not be based on correctly understood and reliable evidence, but the reader of those World Reports is given no opportunity to judge this. So the current document's citations of the World Reports mean nothing more than: "We've said this before".

In addition to pretending to offer evidence without doing so, Adams' procedure here lends itself to a further distortion.

In 1999, a Battambang SRP activist named Chhum Doeun was murdered. Today, Adams declares that this was an instance of "violent repression" of the SRP by the CPP, claiming to document this with a reference to the HRW 2000 World Report.

But what the World Report says is significantly different: "The motive is thought to have been political..." The 2000 report says that the motive "is thought" to be political, although it doesn't say who thought this. Adams in 2015 converts this into an "instance" of CPP attacks on the SRP, without any suggestion that this might be open to question.

(This was the only citation of the HRW World Reports that I checked to see if Adams cited it accurately; I chose it because it was the first such citation.) Most of the 13 other Adams citations of HRW documents are of press releases commenting on some current event in Cambodia: that is, like the World Reports, they tell us only what HRW thought about something.

Again, Adams may also exaggerate what these earlier documents said. For example, in regard to the negotiations to establish the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, Adams claims: "Hun Sen engaged in a prolonged game of stonewalling UN negotiators, prompting a decision in 2002 by the UN to pull out of talks with his government". This is not at all what the UN officials said at the time, and it is also not what HRW said in the press release that Adams cites. That release was actually rather vague on the UN's motives, but implied that the UN was unhappy with the law passed by the National Assembly the previous year and signed by the King in August 2001.

The other three or four citations of HRW appear to be earlier "reports" like the current one.

Overall, HRW's approach seems to be that they are the "good guys", and therefore the world should accept what they say; there is no need to check "facts" that support their views or to consider the evidence of anyone or anything that contradicts their views. The attempted hatchet job on Hun Sen certainly exemplifies that attitude.


1. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman commented on these events: "[N]obody who has read a business magazine in the last few years can be unaware that these days there really are investors who not only move money in anticipation of a currency crisis, but actually do their best to trigger that crisis for fun and profit. These new actors on the scene do not yet have a standard name; my proposed term is ?Soroi'." In 2005, a French court convicted Soros of insider trading during 1988 speculation. He appealed, but the conviction was upheld in 2006 by France's highest court and by the European Court of Human Rights.

2. Journalist Susan Downie, who disagreed with the monitors, was honest enough to report what they said: "... the two main international observer groups effectively declared voting day and counting day free and fair." (Australian Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 54, No. 1, 2000)

3. "Rainsy tells election observers to stay away", Cambodia Daily, 25 February 2013.

Source: http://www.thecambodiaherald.com/opinion/human-rights-watch-takes-a-hatchet-to-history-1272.

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