UNESCO is criticized after Cambodia evicts thousands around World Heritage site Angkor Wat

FILE - Tourists line up for stepping up Angkor Wat temple outside Siem Reap, Cambodia, on Dec. 31, 2017. The human rights group Amnesty International in a report released Tuesday Nov. 14, 2023 has strongly criticized the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO and its World Heritage program for failing to challenge the Cambodian government’s ongoing mass evictions at the world famous centuries-old Angkor Wat temple complex. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith, File)

By GRANT PECK Associated Press

BANGKOK (AP) — The human rights group Amnesty International has strongly criticized UNESCO and its World Heritage program for failing to challenge the Cambodian government’s ongoing mass evictions at the famous centuries-old Angkor Wat temple complex.

The London-based organization in a report released Tuesday charged that the evictions of an estimated 10,000 families by Cambodian authorities violated international and national law.

It said the evicted people have received little or no compensation and the government’s two main resettlement sites have inadequate facilities in terms of roads, water and electricity supplies and sanitation.

The report accused UNESCO of disregarding U.N. guidelines in failing in its obligation to intervene and promote the human right to housing. UNESCO should take a stand especially because its designation of Angkor Wat as a World Heritage site needing protection from damage was reportedly used by Cambodia’s government as an excuse for moving people away from it, said Amnesty.

In response to the findings, the report said that UNESCO World Heritage Center wrote that it “does not have the ability to enforce implementation of rights-based standards and policy recommendations as our role is rather focused on policy advice, capacity building and advocacy.”

There are more than 1,200 World Heritage sites worldwide. Angkor Wat was granted that status in 1992, in part because of fears that the growth of human settlements on the site posed a possible threat to its preservation.

However, the designation was not clear regarding existing settlements, which until last year were left basically undisturbed, said the report. Cambodia is now keen to develop the area for tourism, which lapsed during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Cambodian authorities cruelly uprooted families who have lived in Angkor for several generations, forcing them to live hand to mouth at ill-prepared relocation sites. They must immediately cease forcibly evicting people and violating international human rights law,” said Montse Ferrer, interim deputy regional director for research at Amnesty.

The report says Cambodian authorities claim that the villagers are moving out of the site voluntarily, but that Amnesty’s research earlier this year, including interviews with more than 100 people, established that “almost all … described being evicted or pressured to leave Angkor following intimidation, harassment, threats and acts of violence from Cambodian authorities.”

“Nobody wants to leave their home,” it quoted one woman who had lived at Angkor for more than 70 years as saying.

In addition to inadequate facilities provided at the resettlement camps, their locations — almost an hour by motorbike from Angkor — also make it hard to make a living. Many had earned an income by supplying goods and services for the busy tourist trade at Angkor Wat. Those who engaged in farming says their new location has not been prepared for the activity.

“Cambodia is obligated under seven major human rights treaties to respect, protect and fulfill the right to adequate housing,” the report said.

It said Cambodian officials have dismissed Amnesty’s research and inaccurately accused it of reaching conclusions “thousands of kilometers away from the real situation.” Amnesty said at least 15 of the families it interviewed said the government told them they had to move in order to preserve Angkor’s World Heritage status.

It quoted a speech that then-Prime Minister Hun Sen gave last year saying the site risked losing the designation unless they moved away, and those who did not do so voluntarily would get no compensation. Under his authoritarian rule, such remarks were tantamount to official policy.