“Justice is possible”

10 Nov 2017 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 10 Nov 2017

Saroeun Sek
Saroeun Sek

Saroeun Sek is an incredible man. His efforts in tackling modern slavery in Cambodia provide policy lessons for Northern Ireland – and personal inspiration for everyone.

Northern Ireland’s problems are frustrating but flimsy in comparison with much of the world.

We are held back by disagreements over symbols and a battle between competing versions of the same history. The Troubles remain well within living memory but have been over for 20 years.

That dark and dreadful time brought the worst kind of heartbreak to far too many people – but, as post-conflict societies go, we are relatively unscathed, if not truly operational. To a large degree, our current dysfunction is something we have chosen democratically.

Cambodia is something else entirely. Its own 20th Century history involves a litany of nightmares which left this South East Asian paradise something close to hell on Earth. Following on from their own conflicts, some of the social bonds had collapsed entirely. It takes great will, perseverance and intelligence to overcome these problems.

We wrote last month about how modern slavery – which can mean servitude of labour, sex slavery, or something else – is a relatively small but still very real concern in Northern Ireland.

International Justice Mission (IJM) is a global NGO that works to combat modern slavery. It has a presence in the UK and Ireland, as well as many other nations throughout the world - and its work in Cambodia, alongside the government, police and other statutory agencies, is an example of just much third-sector organisations can achieve, especially in partnerships.

This week in Belfast IJM, along with Attorney General John Larkin, hosted Saroeun Sek, who is IJM’s Director of Legal in Cambodia, and in fact one of the top lawyers in that country specialising in anti-trafficking law.

Mr Sek spoke to the Belfast audience about his own experiences in dealing with modern slavery, to both inspire local efforts and offer advice on how these problems can be tackled.

Early life

Saroeun Sek was born in Cambodia in 1975 at the beginning of the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal reign. He grew up in a nation that was suffering from, and trying to recover from, conflict. When he was a boy he lost three fingers from his right hand; they were blown off when he was playing catch with what turned out to be a hand grenade. His life has changed a lot since then.

“Do you remember where you were 13 years ago, in 2004, what you were doing and what your lives looked like? When you picture your life then, and picture your life now, I’m sure they are incredibly different.

“I was working as a DJ in a club called Martini. At this time, Cambodia was just recovering from war; jobs were few and far between. I did not have any education but I did love music, and I worked from dawn until dusk. Within the walls of that building I saw horrific things, every night.”

Mr Sek outlined the extreme violence that was commonplace in this nightclub – shootings were a regular occurance, and women and girls were victims of violence. Moreover, there was nothing special about Martini; it was emblematic of Cambodia.

“13 years ago young girls were being sold for sex in Cambodia in the open, the problem was widespread, and around 30% of sex workers in the country were children. Everyone knew the justice system was broken – it did not exist for those who were being exploited. From the streets to the courtrooms, Cambodia was filled with darkness and injustice.

“International paedophiles came to Cambodia as sex tourists. They were not afraid to walk around with children in public. Pimps would sit outside brothels with no reason to fear the police.”

This is about as bad as things can get. What has changed between then and now shows that collapses in society can be rebuilt.

DJ, informant, lawyer

At this time, the justice system – from police to judges – was not functioning properly in Cambodia. Mr Sek outlined failures at every stage of the legal process, saying that there was no recourse for the victims of sexual exploitation. Nowadays things have changed.

Local government and law enforcement has made huge improvements and is now taking on modern slavery, head on. IJM has been a significant help with this process - training hundreds of their police officers, working heavily with their anti-trafficking unit and figures in the government. Collaboration has proven transformational.

It is all very different from a time when the country was “known as the ground zero for trafficking and the prostitution of young people”.

“That is what Cambodia was like when I first started working at IJM to fight against this kind of trafficking in the early 2000s. It was hard to believe that change was even possible.

“I was approached by two IJM staff and asked if I would help. I agreed to become an informant.

“The intelligence I provided led to a rescue and an arrest, and then another, and then another. Change was coming, one victim at a time.”

Mr Sek got a place at law school, and he stopped working as an informant – and DJ – at Martini, after finding someone to provide information in his place, and got a job in the IJM offices in Cambodia. Now he is head of their legal department.

One of the top attorneys in Cambodia specializing in anti-trafficking law, he has represented over 100 trafficking survivors and ensured the court’s conviction of 129 trafficking criminals in IJM cases as of July 2017.

Starting in the early 2000s, IJM has partnered with the Cambodian authorities to rescue victims of trafficking, bring criminals to justice, restore survivors and help strengthen the justice system to better protect the poor long-term.

Mr Sek’s efforts in stopping traffickers from getting away with their crimes has helped to dramatically decrease the numbers of children in the commercial sex establishments in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. Under-15’s in commercial sex establishments reduced from 30% in 2003 to under 1% in 2013 in the three urban centres of Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. This trend was confirmed by another follow up study in 2015.  

As he puts it, “13 years ago this was unimaginable and looked impossible. But justice is possible.”

These days he and IJM are putting more of their focus on forced labour in Cambodia. Young men from deprived backgrounds often need to leave home to seek employment opportunities and are vulnerable to, for example, factory work or exploitation on Thai fishing boats.

The plan is much the same as with sexual exploitation – incremental progress: rescue and support victims, prosecute offenders, build links and confidence in the justice system.



Local lessons

At Monday’s event, the Attorney General said: “Many cultures throughout the world respect the idea of “the knight.” The knight is the figure – sometimes mythical, sometimes real – who has power and uses that power to protect the powerless. Mr Sek is a lawyer knight.”

The admiration was genuine and obvious. It is difficult to disagree with the sentiment.

Our situation with regards to modern slavery is not nearly as bleak as in Cambodia. Nevertheless, it should be dealt with - and, given the great strides the Cambodian state and third sector organisations have made in more difficult circumstances than we face here, our expectations should be high.

So, what advice does Mr Sek have for Northern Ireland? Unsurprisingly, he does not advocate any sort of quick fix. Thankfully, what he suggests are the things that local agencies are beginning to put in place.

“In order to tackle this kind of problem you need good systems, and you have to have a proactive response. Partnership is necessary. Organisations have to work alongside government, because government is not able to work alone on this. There needs to be collaboration with civil society - and with the community, to make sure that people know there is a problem.”

Thereafter, it is about making all these links in the chain strong. That is abstract language, what it means in practice is measurable successes – freeing people from slavery, prosecuting offenders. Doing this even one case at a time will make a difference in those specific cases, but also build momentum.

The PSNI now has a dedicated team dealing with modern slavery, there is growing collaboration with organisations and other countrues, and the Department of Justice is trying to raise awareness amongst the public to try and make this a community concern as well as a matter for the relevant agencies.

Cynics could say that awareness-raising campaigns are easy to launch – but the evidence shows that this is a vital step in tackling modern slavery.

“In Cambodia, in the beginning we did not have hope, but IJM started to build partnerships. We started to prosecute cases.”

That is how to be effective on a local level – but modern slavery is an international problem that crosses borders in a literal sense. Again, Mr Sek says that groups and agencies tasked with dealing with this problem need to work together.

“Partnership between multiple countries is very important, whatever the scale of modern slavery in your country.”

The evidence from Mr Sek’s incredible personal story shows that Northern Ireland is on the right track.

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