A new report has found that one of China's Belt and Road Initiative projects in Cambodia -- a hydroelectric dam known as the Lower Sesan 2, completed in 2018 -- resulted in severe human rights violations. The project displaced nearly 5,000 mainly indigenous people and ethnic minorities. Pictured: The Lower Sesan 2 dam. (Photo by Ly Lay/AFP via Getty Images)
A new report, "Underwater: Human Rights Impacts of a China Belt and Road Project in Cambodia," has found that one of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in Cambodia -- a hydroelectric dam known as the Lower Sesan 2, completed in 2018 -- resulted in severe human rights violations. The project displaced nearly 5,000 mainly indigenous people and ethnic minorities, who had lived in villages along the Sesan and Srepok Rivers for generations, earning a living from fishing and agriculture. The project, the report estimates, negatively affected the lives of tens of thousands of other locals, who depend on fishing in the rivers for food and income. The project compromised locals' food security, and their losses were either inadequately compensated or not compensated at all. The Lower Sesan 2 is just one out of seven BRI hydroelectric projects in Cambodia.
In April 2020, serious concerns were also raised about mass displacement from the construction of the Souapiti Dam in Guinea. The construction of the dam reportedly "devastated the livelihoods and food security of thousands of people."
Findings about BRI's negative impact on human rights in Cambodia and Guinea raise the much wider issue of how China's Belt and Road Initiative affects human rights worldwide. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, around 139 countries -- more than half the countries in the world -- have now joined BRI.
China launched the Belt and Road Initiative -- the land-based "Silk Road Economic Belt," and sea-based "21st Century Maritime Silk Road" -- in 2013. The BRI has massively extended China's presence in Central and South Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Africa and Latin America through an enormous network of roads, railways, tunnels, dams, airports, ports, energy pipelines, power plants and telecommunications networks. Underpinning the initiative, the "digital glue", as it has been called, is China's "Digital Silk Road" -- the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System -- a global navigation system created by the People's Liberation Army to rival the US-owned Global Positioning System (GPS). BRI is "an initiative to create a China-centred political and economic bloc, one that will reshape the global order", in the words of Professor Anne-Marie Brady. The project holds such importance for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that the CCP incorporated the BRI into its constitution in 2017.
It is hardly surprising that China's massively expanding presence, particularly in countries that already have dismal or poor human rights records, can cause the human rights of those unfortunate enough to get in the way of a BRI project to deteriorate even further. Cambodia, where the hydroelectric dam caused mass displacement, is a country with significant human rights issues. These, in 2020, included torture, arbitrary detention, the absence of judicial independence, and arbitrary interference in the private lives of citizens, including pervasive electronic media surveillance, and government corruption, according to the US State Department's country report.
In Cambodia, no one, whether from the Cambodian government or the Chinese companies involved in building the dam, came to consult with the communities affected by the dam, and pressure was applied to locals to agree to preset terms. Given China's disregard for human rights, such behavior is likely to be the rule, whenever corrupt and undemocratic local government power, coupled with China's massive infrastructural investments in the form of BRI, bear down on powerless individuals across Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
Iran, where China has also invested in multiple large-scale BRI projects, is another example of such disregard for the rights of locals. Iran has reportedly been leasing out its territorial waters in the Persian Gulf to Chinese industrial ships for more than a decade. This arrangement has led to a situation, according to Iranian reform media, where Chinese fishing vessels are "illegally cleaning out fish resources in the Persian Gulf" while "Iranian fishermen are forced to pay ten thousand dollars in bribes to Somalian pirates to let them fish on the African shores". Such a compromise of locals' food-and-income security is a measure of China's influence in the country -- and a practice coupled with the Iranian government's disregard for the living conditions of its own citizens.
Scant regard for human rights is presumably also one of the reasons why China prefers to deal with autocratic regimes. "China", a report in early 2021 by risk the consultancy firm Verisk Maplecroft concluded, "is pivoting towards more autocratic regimes that represent greater stability for its supply lines than democracies that are, or may become, hostile to Beijing".
Judith Bergman, a columnist, lawyer and political analyst, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.