Heading Back to Cambodia to Work With Human Rights

Two years ago, Rathana Ken left her farming village in the eastern part of Cambodia to travel to Lund, Sweden to study in the Master’s Programme in International Human Rights Law. Now she has graduated.

Two years ago, when she started the programme, we sat down to talk with her. A great deal has happened since then. So we took the chance to catch up with her before she headed home. (Photo: Rathana Ken together with Dr. Radu Mares, her advisor at the Master Programme.)

Do you think of Cambodia and its challenges in the same way today as you did when you left the country to study in Lund?

“I think that Cambodia has improved noticeably in overcoming challenges that impede the social and economic progress, including the implementation of human rights. Cambodia has pledged to deepen reform in 2013 aiming to strengthen peace, stability and social order, promoting sustainable and equitable development, and entrenching democracy, rule of law and human rights.”

“From my personal experience, the remarkable success is the poverty reduction which has dropped from 48.7% in 2007 to 13.5% in 2014. Furthermore, the living standard of public and private employees has been improved through increasing salaries gradually, for example, the current wage of the private sector (garment, textile and footwear industries) has been raised to $153 USD/month. Apart from the progressive achievement, there are certain issues that have not yet rapidly changed and need to be reformed, including the judicial system and corruption within the judiciary and the public administration. The corruption not only undermines the progress of sustainable growth but also the safeguard of human rights and rule of law.”

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned during your time at the Institute?

“There are a lot of interesting things that I’ve learned, however, I like studying and understanding about the European System, especially the protection of human rights at the European level. In addition to numerous instruments related to human rights, I’m impressed by the European Court of Human Rights, which is a judicial body established to safeguard human rights when any EU state violates its obligation under the European Convention on Human Rights.”

Was studying in Lund at the programme like you thought it would be? In what ways was it different?

“Studying in Lund was different from my expectation in the way that the academic curriculum offered me a wide variety of advanced courses on human rights issues. I did not expect that the program here would provide students with elective courses that are very crucial for them to absorb knowledge on the specific issue of human rights, for example, labour, immigration and human rights, to mention a few.”

From Cambodia to Lund to study at the Master's Programme in International Human Rights Law.How have you changed since you left Cambodia? How have you stayed the same?

“I’ve changed a lot. First, I have learned to adjust with the new place and communicate with people who are from different countries. Studying and communicating with people from different countries has taught me about the different academic skills, educational systems and level of social development in those countries. Moreover, we have had an opportunity to share our ideas related to the challenges of implementing human rights in each country. In relation to academic life, I think that my knowledge of international human rights has been improved compared to what I studied during my Bachelor degree.”

What did you do your thesis on?

“My thesis is about the right to social security in Cambodia. Before I came here to pursue my master degree, I always wondered why most Cambodians live in precarious conditions and are vulnerable when they encounter social risk or contingency. For example, when they get sick, they often go to the pharmacy to buy medicine without any proper prescription from the doctor. This still happens to the poor and vulnerable groups who live in the countryside. And if they don’t have enough money for the high cost of treatment, they prefer to stay at home to wait for the death. If the rich people get sick, they go to the expensive hospital in the city or go abroad for treatment. From this experience, it can be concluded that there is an inequality gap between the poor and rich. And I thought there was something missing in this situation but I didn’t know what that was. In Lund, I found out that one of the human rights that people are entitled to is to be protected to secure their income security and health care – that is the right to social security.

“Therefore, this thesis was initiated to analyze whether the implementation of the right to social security conducted by Cambodia is effective and in line with the international social security instruments. And the thesis also tried to examine to what extent the right to social security is implemented and which groups of the population are protected, as well as to determine the challenges that impede the implementation.”

What are the biggest challenges facing Cambodia from a human rights perspective?

“From a human right perspective, Cambodia has not yet effectively implemented its obligations under international human rights instruments that it is a party to. Cambodia has incorporated most of the fundamental human rights in the Constitution since 1993, however, the enforcement of these rights is still deficient. There are several reasons impacting the implementation, for instance, limited institutional capacity, low knowledge of the population, scarcity of national resources and chronic corruption.”

What will you do now?

“In addition to returning to my previous job at the National Authority for Land Dispute Resolution, I will find free time to disseminate my knowledge that I’ve learned from Lund through, for example, teaching at the university in Cambodia or engaging in social activities that can help Cambodians, especially for those who live in rural areas, to understand their rights.”

Rathana received a scholarship from the Camodian programme of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law that is funded by Swedish Development Cooperation.