AusAID defends human rights concerns over Cambodian railways project

IT WAS the $145 million project planned to connect the fragile and debilitated railways of Cambodia.

But this week, two years into the embattled scheme, a raft of non-government organisations, 30 Cambodian families and the Human Rights Law Centre filed a complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission over what they say are breaches of basic human rights.

Australia, in partnership with the Asian Development Bank and Cambodian government, has a $27 million stake in the Cambodian railway rehabilitation project that has been touted as expanding trade and uniting and bringing prosperity to the impoverished nation.

But the project has been plagued by setbacks including the difficulty of resettling 4164 families who live alongside the dilapidated railway tracks and say they now have lost their homes, income, gardens and access to life necessities.

The policy director of the Human Rights Law Centre, Rachel Ball, said this equates to the Australian government failing to uphold international human rights obligations.

“Incorporating human rights into the development and delivery of aid programs is central to aid effectiveness and can prevent large scale violations such as those associated with the railways project,” she said.

The managing associate of Inclusive Development International, David Pred, said that since 2010 its Cambodian-based organisation had repeatedly warned AusAID about potential human rights violations.

"AusAID failed to take sufficient remedial and correction action to avoid abuses and mitigate harms that people have suffered,” Mr Pred said.

AusAID has committed a further $2 million to improve community consultation and the monitoring of resettlement, as well as helping resettled people to earn a living and manage their finances.

"We are confident that our funding for this project is fully consistent with Australia's international legal obligations, including under international human rights law," a spokesman said.

AusAID supports the project as it will "deliver economic benefits for the entire country and lift tens of thousands of Cambodians out of poverty".

In March the Australian transport company Toll Group pulled out of its 30-year deal in the controversial project.

In November 2010 Fairfax reported the drowning death of three-year-old Hut Heap and her nine-year-old brother Hut Hoeub, near Battambang in western Cambodia, when looking for freshwater four days after their family and 50 others had been resettled due to the rail project.

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