Cambodian refugee deal a 'bad joke', says former foreign affairs minister Gareth Evans

Cambodian refugee deal a 'bad joke', says former foreign affairs minister Gareth Evans

Cambodian refugee deal a 'bad joke', says former foreign affairs minister Gareth Evans

Updated 24 October 2017, 19:45 AEDT

The $55 million deal to resettle refugees in Cambodia is a "joke in bad taste" that has undermined Australia's diplomatic influence, says former foreign affairs minister Gareth Evans.

The $55 million deal to resettle refugees in Cambodia is a "joke in bad taste" that has undermined Australia's diplomatic influence, says former Labor foreign affairs minister Gareth Evans.

Key points:

  • Gareth Evans says Cambodia refugee deal has weakened Australian diplomacy
  • Mr Evans says Cambodia under Hun Sen is a human rights "wasteland"
  • More than half Cambodia's opposition MPs have fled abroad amid threats

Mr Evans said Australian diplomacy has been hobbled by the refugee deal at a time when something needs to be done to address Cambodia's slide into authoritarianism.

The deal with Cambodia was struck three years ago under then immigration minister Scott Morrison, but at last count, just three refugees had been resettled from Nauru.

"I think the refugee resettlement is a joke in bad taste which should never have been implemented for a country like this," Mr Evans said.

"It's manifestly been ineffective of getting take-up of any refugees who want to go anywhere near the place.

"It's cost Australia a lot of money, it's denied us any kind of effective leverage, where our voice might otherwise have been important in bringing the Hun Sen Government to heel on its human rights violations."

Mr Evans' comments come amid calls to reconvene the conference on Cambodia that led to the 1991 Paris Peace Accords and a $2 billion UN peacekeeping mission.

"Urgent action is required to ensure that the vision of a democratic Cambodia outlined in the Paris agreements is not betrayed," 50 organisations wrote in a joint letter this week.

But Mr Evans said reviving the Paris talks may not be the best way forward.

"The Paris Conference outcome document is now 25 years old and it's a bit difficult to believe that it can be a vehicle for re-establishing that conference dynamic," he said.

Cambodia drifting toward authoritarianism

Cambodia's drift towards a one-party police state has been underway for years, but attacks against the Opposition have intensified in recent months.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has ruled Cambodia for 32 years and tried to head off the idea of another international intervention.

"Don't imagine you can hold a meeting like the Paris Peace conference again because the Paris Peace agreement is like a ghost," he said earlier this month.

The president of the Opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, Kem Sokha, is in pre-trial detention, facing charges of treason for a speech he made in Melbourne.

More than half the Opposition's members of Parliament have fled abroad, amid threats and harassment.

The ruling party is now trying to use the possible conviction of Kem Sokha as grounds for dissolving the Opposition party and redistributing its seats to a failed royalist party.

Independent radio broadcasts have been shut down and English language newspaper The Cambodia Daily was forced to close due to the Government's sudden demands for alleged unpaid tax.

Hun Sen strikes amidst distraction

Mr Evans described Cambodia as a democratic and human rights "wasteland", and said Indonesia, Japan and the United States could bring pressure of the Hun Sen Government.

"Other options of course are doing it through ASEAN itself, although ASEAN has become a little bit of a human rights wilderness at the moment, which makes that a bit implausible," he said.

In a statement, a DFAT spokesperson said Australia remained, "fully committed to supporting Cambodia's democracy".

"[Australia] continues to urge Cambodia to provide a safe and enabling environment for Cambodians to practise their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association," the spokesperson said.

Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen's Cambodia, said the Paris agreement was really about disentangling the major Cold War powers from a civil war in Cambodia.

Mr Strangio agreed there appeared to be little appetite for major diplomatic interventions now.

"The problem is you look at South-East Asia as a whole and you see a military government in Thailand, 8,000 people killed in the drug war in the Philippines, half a million people driven out of Myanmar into Bangladesh," he said.

"Frankly, the crisis of Cambodian democracy doesn't register as important as it might have in the past.

"Hun Sen is striking at the right time, while foreign powers are distracted by other problems in the region and he feels like he'll be able to get away with it."