The United Nations has revoked the special consultative status of a non-governmental organization representing the indigenous Khmer Krom group in Vietnam, drawing protests from human rights groups which accused the global body of buckling to pressure from Hanoi.
Member states of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) on Monday voted 27-14, with 10 abstentions, to rescind a consensus decision in May approving the application by the Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation (KKF) for special consultative status with the Council.
Vietnam protested strongly against the May decision and proposed a resolution overturning the move along with El Salvador and fellow Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states Burma, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.
The United States and the European Union meanwhile had expressed their opposition to the resolution revoking the special status of the KKF representing the Khmer Krom, an ethnic group that U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) says faces serious restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly, association, information, and movement in Vietnam.
The ECOSOC had “caved to Vietnamese pressure," a joint statement by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (OPHRD) and the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) said.
The OPHRD is a joint program of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT).
Ahead of the vote, the OPHRD, along with 12 international and regional human rights groups, urged ECOSOC member states to oppose the draft resolution and to “support the ability of civil society organizations to freely participate in the work of the United Nations.”
In the statement, the OPHRD pointed out that special consultative status is granted to NGOs that “have a special competence in, and are concerned specifically with, only a few of the fields of activity covered by the Council and its subsidiary bodies, and that are known within the fields for which they have or seek consultative status.”
In Tuesday’s joint statement, Vo Van Ai, president of the Paris-based VCHR, condemned those U.N. member states that had joined Vietnam in rescinding the decision.
“It is shameful that many U.N. member states caved in to Vietnam’s pressure and became an accomplice in stifling the rightful voices of human rights defenders,” he said.
“It sends a chilling signal to the people in Vietnam that the international community is not on their side in their quest for greater freedom.”
Souhayr Belhassen, president of the FIDH, said that Vietnam, which intends to run for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council, has repeatedly attacked independent human rights defenders at home and abroad, reflecting its “consistently dismal human rights record.”
“Before it is even elected to the Human Rights Council, Vietnam is already busy obstructing human rights groups from cooperating with the U.N. to promote human rights,” he said.
“This kind of intimidation must not be tolerated anywhere in the U.N. system.”
Gerald Staberock, secretary-general of the OMCT, called the resolution “an expression of fear to hear unpleasant truths and opinions.”
“The basis of any commitment to human rights defenders is the recognition of their very existence and their right to speak and to be heard, and the states have failed in this test—Vietnam in the first place,” he said.
Plans to reapply
Thach Ngoc Thach, the president of the KKF who led a delegation to join the ECOSOC, said his federation would reapply for membership in the next three years.
“The federation will continue to advocate to countries that didn’t vote or voted in absentia to support our bid for next time,” he said.
He added that Vietnamese allegations that the Khmer Krom are seeking independence from Vietnam were untrue.
“We cannot accept these allegations,” he said.
Thach Ngoc Thach said that even though the KKF was refused the right to act as an ECOSOC member, the federation remains recognized by the international community for its work on behalf of the Khmer Krom.
“This should not be considered a failure because we have received support from the U.S., France, and England. The countries that support Vietnam are Russia and China,” he said.
“The communist countries are supporting each other.”
The Khmer Krom, many of whom have moved to Cambodia to escape persecution, are from southern Vietnam’s lower Mekong delta region, which Cambodians sometimes call "Kampuchea Krom," or "Lower Cambodia." As Khmers, they are ethnically similar to most Cambodians, and are considered outsiders in Vietnam.
The Vietnamese government has banned Khmer Krom human rights publications and tightly controls the Theravada Buddhism by the minority, who see the religion as a foundation of their distinct culture and ethnic identity.
In 2007, the Vietnamese government suppressed protests by over 200 ethnic Khmer Buddhist monks in Suc Trang who were calling for religious freedom and more Khmer-language education.
On the other side of the border, the Khmer Krom who leave Vietnam for Cambodia remain one of the country’s “most disenfranchised groups,” HRW has said.
Because they are often perceived as Vietnamese by Cambodians, many Khmer Krom in Cambodia face social and economic discrimination.
They also face hurdles in legalizing their status in the country, as despite promises to treat them as Cambodian citizens, authorities have failed to grant many Khmer Krom citizenship or residence rights, according to HRW.
Reported by Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English with additional reporting by Joshua Lipes.