Getting Tough on Hun Sen for Undermining Democracy in Cambodia


Getting Tough on Hun Sen for Undermining Democracy in Cambodia

Jan 8th, 2018 3 min read
Olivia Enos

Senior Policy Analyst, Asian Studies Center

Olivia specializes in human rights and national security challenges in Asia.
Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen listens to the discussions during the ASEAN Summit Plenary at the Philippine International Convention Center November 13, 2017. King Rodriguez/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Cambodian elections, slated for July, will be nothing short of a sham if conditions don't change soon.

In September, Kem Sokha, president of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was arrested. The Supreme Court dissolved the entire party in November. Since then, the regime’s crackdown on NGOs and other opposition leaders has continued unabated.

Prime Minister Hun Sen is calling the international community’s bluff. He clearly does not expect the U.S., the EU, or any other nation to take action against him or the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) for undermining democracy.

It is time for the U.S. and other international actors to prove him wrong. To date, the response to the regime has been only intermittently strong. The U.S. should lead by instituting targeted financial measures against Hun Sen and his CPP cadres.

At a congressional hearing in mid-December, Monovithya Kem(daughter of Kem Sokha and the deputy director-general of public affairs for the CNRP), Kenneth Wollack (president of the National Democratic Institute) and I urged lawmakers to mandate that individuals undermining democracy in Cambodia be listed as Specially Designated Nationals (SDN). We also asked that they deploy sanctions authorities under the Global Magnitsky Act, which allows Congress to sanction individuals on human rights and corruption grounds. Members of Congress at the hearing expressed an interest in seriously pursuing these options – calling for efforts to compile names of individuals in Cambodia who might be eligible for sanctions.

The power of these tools lies in the centrality of the U.S. dollar to the international financial system. Every dollar-denominated currency transaction conducted worldwide must pass through a U.S. Treasury Department regulated bank in the United States. Treasury’s authority over U.S. banks subject any individual placed on the SDN list or designated under Global Magnitsky authorities who conducts a dollar-denominated transaction to the potential of having their assets frozen or seized, paying a fine, or being designated a money laundering concern and precluded from accessing the U.S. financial system. This will have a chilling effect on the bank accounts of individuals in Cambodia found violating the sanctions

The U.S. Department of State has already taken steps to hold Hun Sen accountable. In addition to instituting a travel ban on all Cambodian officials undermining democracy, it has cut funding and support for the Cambodian National Election Committee and the 2018 elections. The White House also issued a statement noting that, “On current course [2018] elections will not be legitimate, free, or fair.”

Unfortunately, when the Trump administration issued designations under the Global Magnitsky Act in December, it failed to designate any Cambodian officials. Still, Congress can press for sanctions under Global Magnitsky and various other authorities.

After issuing the travel ban against Cambodian officials, the U.S. explicitly stated that additional steps will be taken if the situation continues or further deteriorates. The situation is clearly not improving. There remains no viable opposition party ahead of elections, and Hun Sen is threatening to jail remaining opposition leaders like Monovithya Kem. Civil society has been effectively silenced.

It’s time to take those next steps—and swiftly. That includes taking targeted financial measures against Hun Sen and his henchmen.

By instituting targeted financial measures, the U.S. sends the clear message that it continues to support the Cambodian people, but it will punish bad actors who undermine their freedom, human rights, and quest for democracy. Absent U.S. leadership, it is unlikely that the international community will do anything to halt the deteriorating situation in Cambodia.

This piece originally appeared in Forbes