This July, US Representative Ted Yoho succeeded in pushing his Cambodia Democracy bill through the United States House of Representatives from where it will go to the Senate for further debate and a vote which may or may not see the bill passing into law. If passed, the Cambodia Democracy Act will create a requirement for the American president to impose sanctions on individuals deemed responsible by him for acts undermining democracy in Cambodia. Yoho introduced a similar bill last year, which passed the House but did not survive the Senate.
The current bill directs the president to identify senior members of Cambodia’s government, military or security forces who have “directly and substantially undermined democracy in Cambodia” or “committed or directed serious human rights violations associated with undermining democracy in Cambodia” and to then impose sanctions — asset seizures and visa restrictions — on them. The bill does not apply to the importation of goods, and may be waived where it benefits the national interest of the United States.
The president will be required to identify and penalise the individuals concerned within 180 days of the law’s enactment, however the short seven-section bill does not elaborate on a process for identifying those individuals, or the standard of proof required before sanctions may be imposed upon them. This seems to be an unsatisfactory way of achieving the bill’s goals, and a violation of the very principles it purports to uphold.
It is possible to view Mr. Yoho’s legislative proposal within the context of a network of bills he has sponsored or co-sponsored this year that might be considered antagonistic by China. These include bills he has introduced which aim to encourage engagement between US and Taiwanese officials and to support the reinstatement of Taiwan’s observer status at the World Health Organisation. Last month, Mr. Yoho cheered on the sale of 66 F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan, a sale that will be viewed as a grave affront by China. Mr Yoho — who is Chairman of the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs — has also co-sponsored the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy bill and the Championing American Business Through Diplomacy Act of 2019. The latter aims, inter alia, to create a counter to China’s Belt and Road initiative by promoting US business values within foreign markets.
While support for the development of democracy and human rights in Cambodia is always welcome, it is important that Cambodia should not be cast in the role of pawn in a wider geopolitical game between two great powers. It should be remembered that a pawn’s essential function is to be sacrificed for some benefit outside itself, and Cambodia has counted the cost of filling this role before. For democracy to succeed, it needs to be fought on its own merits.