Rights Worker Battles Human Trafficking

The founder of one of Cambodia’s most influential NGOs talks about how to more effectively combat human trafficking in her country.

2009.09.18
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Kek-Galabru-305.jpg Kek Galabru speaks to journalists in front of a prison in Phnom Penh, Aug. 1, 2006.
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During Cambodia’s civil war in the 1980s, Dr. Kek Galabru arranged negotiations between the country’s Prime Minister Hun Sen and then-deposed King Norodom Sihanouk which eventually led to the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1991. The accords mandated a United Nations mission to Cambodia to supervise elections and resolve the long-standing conflict.

Galabru, who had been living overseas, returned to Cambodia following the peace accords to find a nation suffering from the aftermath of protracted war and poverty. She founded the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (known by its French acronym LICADHO) in 1992, which became one of the first human rights organizations established in the new civil society made possible by the UN mission.

In the following extracts from an interview, Galabru shares her thoughts on the current state of human trafficking in Cambodia and what the government must do to combat the problem more effectively:

“The government has shown to us that they care about the problem of trafficking because it touches Cambodian women, children, and men. Trafficking is really a crime against humanity—it’s a gross violation of human rights. It’s really bad for the stability of a country because Cambodia is not only a country of origin of trafficking, but we also receive trafficked victims. We are a transit place—the trafficked pass through Cambodia to go to other countries—and we are also the origin, meaning that people are trafficked from Cambodia to other countries…it affects many countries in the region internationally, and the U.S. also pays great attention to that.”

“We can see that the Cambodian government acknowledges that we have a problem of trafficking. They have a department of anti-trafficking in the Ministry of the Interior. They also adopted another law, more comprehensive than the previous one, but still the law is not perfect. We can make amendments, but it is still not well implemented. And the weak point of the law is that it is not independent of the court.”

“When you talk about trafficking, you rely a lot on the court. You have to arrest the trafficker and then bring them to justice, so that if other people want to do the same crime, they will think it over. They will know that they can go to jail. But here we have a problem. We only see small traffickers prosecuted, but the big ones always get impunity.”

“There are only some provisions to protect the victims and rehabilitate them. It’s very important…You have to prosecute the perpetrator and you have to assist the victim. The victim should have a comprehensive program to assist them. Victims of trafficking have trauma for their whole life. So you have to provide psychological assistance, shelter, medical assistance, legal assistance. Also rehabilitation—maybe a skilled training program—and follow up for a long time, not only a few days. Let them go to their family, because there is also discrimination against them by their own family and by the community. For one victim of human trafficking you have to spend a lot of energy to rehabilitate them, otherwise it becomes a problem for society.”

“The government has some programs, but they are not enough. They have to have a bigger program. Now some NGOs have programs for rehabilitation and assistance to the victims. The prosecution of the perpetrators relies on the government, because we in civil society can only bring the information to the government—to the authorities in charge—and the authorities have to arrest and prosecute. We have no power to do that. We can only bring information. But we have some programs to assist the victim and to provide skilled training and that should be done by the government also at the national level. We lack that, because we lack human resources and we lack financial resources. And also, there is the problem of no independence of the judiciary. The problem of corruption also has a big negative impact on that issue too.”

“So with these all combined and the world [economic] crisis, people lack jobs and are more vulnerable to trafficking…[and to] land grabbing and evictions. People who have nothing to lose—who lost their jobs and their financial resources, who have no access to medical care and no education for their children—they are also very vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation, especially human trafficking. So [through] all these combined factors we see that the problem of trafficking still remains in Cambodia, and that is the reason why the U.S. downgraded Cambodia (in the human trafficking rankings).”

Original reporting by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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