Selling the Killing Fields

A few minutes to leave your home before it’s bulldozed: a reality for thousands in Cambodia reports

To be woken in the middle of the night and given minutes to gather basic essentials before your home is bulldozed is surely the stuff of nightmares. But as Unreported World on Channel 4 tonight (Friday 20 March) will show, this is the reality for thousands of Cambodians.

The programme ‘Cambodia: Selling the Killing Fields’ focuses on the people of Dey Kraham – a slum district in Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh. It shows the residents there being first thrown onto the streets by security forces and hired demolition workers, and then left to watch as their homes are turned into dust by wave after wave of bulldozers.

The experience of Dey Kraham is not a one off. Forced eviction – the removal of people against their will from the homes or land they occupy, without adequate notice, consultation, due process and assurance of adequate alternative accommodation – is the reality for thousands of Cambodians.

In 2008 alone, Amnesty International received reports of at least 27 forced evictions affecting over 20,000 people in Cambodia, most of them marginalised groups already living in poverty. And about another 150,000 Cambodians are still living under the threat of the same treatment in the midst of land disputes and agro-industrial and urban redevelopment projects.

But the blight of forced evictions is not unique to Cambodia. Millions of people around the world – in Angola, Kenya, Guatemala and dozens of other countries - are living under the threat of being forcibly evicted.

Instead of protecting their populations against this gross human rights violation, governments are seen to be directly or indirectly involved in demolishing homes and destroying communities, leaving the people, who are already surviving on very little, destitute and homeless.

Often, forced evictions are carried out at the behest of corporations that have built a close relationship with the local authorities – a relationship that allows them to commit such abuses without being held accountable. Sadly, forced evictions happen without much international furore.

Amnesty International has worked tirelessly for several years with governments, multinationals and global bodies to show the benefits of adopting a human rights approach to business. Progress has already been made in some areas; for example companies from Unilever to Sony and from Nokia to GlaxoSmithKline now have a human rights dimension in their codes of conducts.

Meanwhile, here, the UK Government passed the Corporate Manslaughter Act. This was as a result of concern that companies were not being held to account for their negligence, even when this resulted in injuries and deaths.

If this important step can be taken in the UK, then the same principle could be applied across the globe. The international community – both businesses and governments – needs to address the issue of forced evictions head on.

The business world needs to open its eyes to the communities it operates in and acknowledge its responsibilities to uphold fundamental human rights.

Amnesty and others are calling for strong regulation both nationally and internationally to ensure incidents like the destruction of Dey Kraham are not allowed to be repeated.

Right now we are calling on the Cambodian government to end forced evictions, and to ensure that all those made homeless have access to at least minimum essential shelter, clean water, sanitation, health services and education, including through the provision of humanitarian assistance where necessary.

Kate Allen is Director of Amnesty International UK