Ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia: A Case Study of the Tension Between Foreign Policy and Human Rights

6 Touro International Law Review, pp. 377-416 (1995)

40 Pages Posted: 9 Aug 2013

See all articles by Brian Owsley

Brian Owsley

Texas Tech University School of Law

Date Written: 1995


In international affairs, nations experience a tension between supporting human rights and their foreign policy. Countries generally accept that certain human rights principles exist. Moreover, most countries accept that these principles are universal. Notwithstanding, many individual citizens from numerous countries have their rights violated by states and their agents. From an international perspective, the world community cannot punish or vindicate all these violations. The decision of how and when to protect human rights creates problems when countries must still conduct foreign policy. They must choose whether to emphasize human rights at the expense of good relations or promote good relations at the expense of individual human rights. The abuses suffered by the ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia illustrate the limits of human rights and international law when confronted by the realities of foreign affairs.

Historically, the Cambodian and Vietnamese people share a mutual distrust and dislike for each other...The French exacerbated this tension by establishing artificial colonial boundaries, between the two peoples, that left many ethnic Cambodians living in modem day Vietnam and many ethnic Vietnamese living in modem day Cambodia…[T]he French employed the Vietnamese, as "intellectually superior", servants to run the daily administration of its protectorate. As a result of Vietnam's colonial wars with the French and, then with the United States, some Vietnamese refugees were forced to flee and settle in Cambodia...Although they arrived in Cambodia at different times, today [the Vietnamese] experience widespread discrimination and other human rights violations. Nonetheless, the various actors in the Cambodian theater have often forgotten or ignored their plight...Their human rights concerns are displaced by larger geopolitical questions such as ignoring a nation's abuse because it has strategic importance. Thus, the United States will discuss human rights in Cambodia, but at the same time it prefers to limit the influence of Vietnam in the region rather than take measures to protect individuals from the Khmer Rouge. Moreover, America's distrust of Vietnam offers an opportunity for the American foreign policy to coincide with Chinese foreign policy interests. The Chinese government has long waged a battle of wills, as well as weapons, along their border in a push to control the entire Southeast Asian region. Therefore, U.S. and Chinese foreign policy goals merge in an attempt to limit Vietnam's influence in the region.

In Part II, this paper discusses the colonial and modem history that outlines this problem. Part III describes the relevant international law concerning the ethnic Vietnamese, and Part IV further elaborates on the issue of human rights. In Part V, this paper presents the principal nations that have a major effect on Cambodia, as well as their foreign policy towards Cambodia. Part VI analyzes the relationship between human rights and foreign policy, including how this tension affects the rights of ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia.

Keywords: Cambodia, Vietnam, Vietnamese, human rights, international law, foreign policy, Khmer Rouge, United Nations, Universal Declaration on Human Rights

JEL Classification: K33, K39, K42, K49, K19

Suggested Citation

Owsley, Brian, Ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia: A Case Study of the Tension Between Foreign Policy and Human Rights (1995). 6 Touro International Law Review, pp. 377-416 (1995). Available at SSRN:

Brian Owsley (Contact Author)

Texas Tech University School of Law ( email )

1802 Hartford Avenue
Lubbock, TX 79409
United States

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