Human Rights at the United Nations

KKF representative at UNPFII
KKF representatives at the UN head quarter

One doesn’t expect their handiwork to appear often on the opinion page of The Wall Street Journal, especially if your profession focuses on peace, freedom and human rights.

Yet, on 31 July, one of the campaigns that has been coordinated at the United Nations headquarters was written up by The Wall Street Journal. The article outlines the abusive actions by a state to silence a member of civil society even beyond its borders actually at the United Nations itself.

What was a procedural practices has escalated into an enormous exam for the United Nations to uphold its preamble of We the Peoples in an organization run by states serving only their interest of self-preservation not serving the public.

While many readers of the Wall Street Journal may believe nothing ever happens at the United Nations, the event that resulted in the editorial highlights the huge amount of activity in the UN and around the world regarding the realization of human rights.

There is a struggle for every syllable and sentence to be said while states try to silence civil society.

KKF Religious leaders and youths attending UN conference - waiting for their turn to speak on their community's behalf
KKF Religious leaders and youths attending UN conference – waiting for their turn to speak on their community’s behalf

The Khmers Kampuchea Krom is a small but persistent association of advocates representing their families and community from the Mekong Delta to the world. Khmers Kampuchea Krom share their unique cultural history and holistic spiritual vision for their homeland.

For nearly a decade, the Khmers Kampuchea Krom has diligently shared their story with the world at various United Nations human rights charter and treaty bodies reviewing the record of recognized rights in Vietnam.

Every May at the United Nations, peoples movements apply for a membership to participate consistently during meetings. In a way, it provides an annual badge allowing to attend any session. It’s a pass to participate in peace.

To even apply for Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) status, the group must already function as a recognized association in a member-state of the United Nations. Each state has legal requirements to exist as a non-profit organization. The KKF has been such an entity working for equality and ecology for a decade.

NGOs apply every year on June 1 submitting a substantive set of documentation for Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) status. For one year that material is reviewed and then the Committee of NGOs consisting of 19 states review the applications.

The KKF met with state-members of the Committee on NGOS and even the chair prior to the session to be available for any questions or comments regarding any documentation or activities undertaken in its decade of existence. On the day of review, on 22 May, the committee took a consensus position will all in agreement to grant ECOSOC status. Yet, one week later, on 29 May, the Vietnam Ambassador Le Hoai Trung took the floor in a rare action as it is not even a member of the Committee. Vietnam officially registered a protest against the KKF application.

The speech said a lot more than that though. Throughout the intervention he made many false claims based on fear attempting to blacklist the KKF. In a short speech, the Ambassador claimed KKF had “dark politically motivated objectives” and “dark schemes in violation” of principles in the UN Charter. The only thing dark about the KKF is their skin. They are discriminated for their language, religion and identified by their darker skin as they are the traditional farmers of the Mekong Delta region. For centuries, Vietnam has discriminated for their dark skin. Now it admitted that to the global audience.

The good aspect about such a speech is it illustrates the true colors of the country for the world to see. Before no one would know what discrimination they face by the government regarding their fundamental freedoms. The actions over the next two months show to what extent Vietnam will go to toward eliminating the voice of Khmer Krom people around the planet.

What should have been a routine vote became a violation of basic human rights. Vietnam pitched a political fit and squandered massive amounts of resources to stop one segment of its society from legal recognition in the world. This is what it does constantly inside its borders.

For two months, Vietnam visited capitol cities in many countries. Hanoi traded political horses to harness votes by authoritarian states such as Belarus, China and Russia. Meanwhile, the peoples of the planet came together to support rule of law, culture of peace and spirit of human rights and solidarity. Fifteen NGOs with decades of experience working with human rights defenders distributed a letter encouraging support for the accreditation application of KKF. NGOs with the moral conscience of the world and with decades of experience exposing dictators and empowering democracy activists stood in solidarity with the indigenous peoples of the Mekong Delta, including Human Rights Watch, the International Rederation for Human Rights, the International Service for Human Rights and the International Commission of Jurists.

At the conclusion of the ECOSOC session at end of July, Vietnam gave another speech once again painting KKF with “dark aims, ill-will and illegal acts.” However, the most sinister statements compare the leaders with fanatics like the Khmer Rouge and claim KKF words could lead to war and genocide. This is beyond reprehensible as it was the Khmer Krom who were specifically targeted by the Khmer Rouge. In fact, the leader of the KKF actually lost 57 member of his own family. For too long Vietnam has been able to make the Khmer Krom invisible erasing their existence out of history books. The Vietnamization of the Mekong Delta region is now on the global agenda.

With a short 20 word resolution, the rights of Khmer Krom was denied. Vietnam took sad set of steps to stop citizens of the world to practice most basic rights of assembly, participation and speech. In the end, Vietnam got 27 states to side with their version of the story scaring other states with tales of secession and terrorism. Fourteen states voted for freedom and 10 states abstained.

Many states discouraged Vietnam from taking such an extreme position to prevent a peoples association from participating and exercising basic fundamental freedoms. Vietnam insisted it was a matter of national security. When pressed with questions if the Khmers Kampuchea Krom had any weapons or any killed anyone Vietnam answered no to both but kept their position.

The Economic and Social Council full decision to overturn the consensus decision made by the NGO committee sets a poor precedence for participation for peoples movements at the United Nations. It wasn’t only the KKF that will suffer, but all NGOs as more states will pursue such a path of preventing the people from the practice of truth-telling.

ECOSOC can recommend, call for review back at NGO committee, revoke a current member status, reinstate status and now initiate a new procedure of introducing a resolution before the full ECOSOC where states can swap votes and reject an application.

This year, 128 NGOs were recommended to be granted status by ECOSOC. The KKF was the only one to have a resolution introduced and be denied the most basic principles of democracy – freedom of speech.

NGOs must be allowed to freely participate not fear persecution at the United Nations.

The Wall Street Journal concluded its article, “The mistake these activists make is looking at the U.N. as they’d like it to be, not as it really is.”

Indigenous groups listen to UNPFII chairwoman speaks
Indigenous groups listen to UNPFII chairwoman speaks

It is not that NGOs don’t understand the United Nations. The NGOs know how it really is in their daily lives which the Wall Street Journal rarely reports focusing instead on financial profits not people. It is that in the activists own countries their communities are persecuted and their lands poisoned. What the Wall Street Journal doesn’t comprehend is that indigenous peoples will go to the ends of the earth to fight for their freedoms and demand recognition of their inherent dignity.

The Wall Street Journal will hopefully understand one day the reason they can write such articles and have such opinion pieces published is they are fortunate enough to live in a state where fundamental freedoms and human rights are a reality. If they don’t cover such issues more often one day they might realize that if anyone’s rights are denied all of our rights are threatened.

During this process at the United Nations, the KKF were tested by the heavy-handed tactics but not tortured like what happens in Vietnam. The KKF were prevented from participating but they weren’t put in prison and most important, the KKF were denied their application but they are not dead. Too often around the world, human rights defenders that speak up in solidarity face consequences. The KKF and other peoples movements will continue to coordinate campaigns for peace, human rights and global justice at the United Nations but also at the regional level such as ASEAN and in countries community by community.

In this case, the indigenous peoples are alive and well also they were able to awake the world to what is happening in a small village in our global village that is not in the headlines yet part of humanity. Vietnam desires to be elected to the UN Human Rights Council later in the year.

Members of the Human Rights Council must uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights. Also that when electing consider and take into account the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights and their voluntary pledges and commitments made.

Just a brief review of human rights situation recently doesn’t quite match up with the requirements for membership. Most recently, three pro-democracy bloggers are on trial during summer holidays behind closed doors to be tried by the Ho Chi Minh Peoples Court. Vietnam regularly parades human rights defenders before kangaroo courts making a crime out of free speech. One mother of a detained blogger immolated herself to protest the unfair imprisonment dying later that day.

Freedom House rates Vietnam as Not Free in all three annual surveys: Freedom in the World 2012, Freedom of the Press 2012 and Freedom of the Net 2011.

Does Vietnam deserve to be a Human Rights Councilor? The world will decide again with another vote in a not well-known United Nations meeting in November.