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Gareth Evans gives Julie Bishop a diplomatic serve over Cambodia

February 28th, 2014

It is hard to get present day Labor politicians to lift their interest in matters of foreign policy past comments about the damage that asylum seeker policy is doing to relations with Indonesia. Even the remarkable flirtation Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had with her Cambodian counterpart over his country taking some of the Australia bound regimes could not stir an interest.

So enter Gareth Evans, Foreign Minister under Hawke and Keating, to remind us that the Labor Party once had principles. “Cambodia’s government has been getting away with murder,” wrote Evans ,who is now Chancellor of the Australian National University, in an article published in today’s Phnom Penh Post and available on the Project Syndicate website. “For far too long, Hun Sen and his colleagues have been getting away with violence, human-rights abuses, corruption, and media and electoral manipulation without serious internal or external challenge.”

And the man who played a major role in the Cambodian peace process devoted a paragraph or three to Julie Bishop:

But the tone of too many of these statements has been muted. Australia’s statements have been typical – falling over backward to avoid giving offense, and too anxious to balance criticism with praise. Officials are “concerned” about “recent disproportionate violence against protesters” but “welcome the Government’s stated commitment to undertake electoral reforms.”

Australia’s new foreign minister, Julie Bishop, has talked, as foreign ministers often do, of the need to avoid unproductive “megaphone diplomacy” and to “engage, not enrage” her counterparts. But, it seems that no robust critique was delivered when she met privately with Hun Sen in Phnom Penh on February 22 – even though Australia’s high standing in Cambodia (not least owing to its historical role in the peace process) means that its voice certainly would have been listened to.

There is a place for quiet diplomacy that relies on genuine engagement to encourage significant behavioral change. But when states behave badly enough for long enough, loud megaphones can also be in order.

I know Hun Sen and worked well with him in the past. I have resisted strong public criticism until now, because I thought there was hope for both him and his government. But their behavior has now moved beyond the civilized pale. It is time for Cambodia’s political leaders to be named, shamed, investigated, and sanctioned by the international community.

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