Lon Nol Debt Demand Legal, But Not Moral
By | December 14, 2012

By Stephen Higgins

U.S. Ambassador William Todd is to be congratulated on his attempts to reach out to the Cambodian community to explain the U.S. government’s position on the debt incurred by the Lon Nol regime to the U.S.

There can be little argument that the current Cambodian government has a legal obligation to repay the Lon Nol-era debt under international law. Almost without exception, Cambodian government officials who I have discussed this with over the years accept the legality of the debt.

However, what is legal is not necessarily right or moral. As a banker, I always understood that if you engaged in unconscionable conduct with a customer, you risked making any claims on that customer unenforceable.

Indeed, in recent times we have seen authorities in the U.S. and elsewhere prosecuting organizations who have engaged in unconscionable conduct in the past, and setting aside otherwise legally enforceable debt obligations due to that conduct. If that is a standard that the U.S. government is holding organizations to, is it not unreasonable that the U.S. should be held to the same standards?

In the case of Cambodia and U.S. relations, what conduct can be more unconscionable than the U.S. bombing campaign against Cambodia?

The lengths to which the administration of then-U.S. President Richard Nixon went to keep the Operation Menu bombings of Cambodia in 1969 to ’70 a secret from both Congress and the American people is testament to how unconscionable it was. To then intensify the bombings beyond what was subsequently promised to Congress increases the level of culpability.

I think the Cambodian government has been remarkably restrained so far in not presenting the U.S. with a bill for reparations, perhaps for an amount equivalent to the Lon Nol-era debt, but justifiably much, much more.

I am normally quite pro-U.S., but if the U.S. is genuine in their desire to improve bilateral relations, they need to accept their position on the Lon Nol debt is not morally tenable.

Stephen Higgins is the former CEO of ANZ Royal Bank.

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