UNESCO urges Cambodia not to forcibly evict residents of Angkor Wat temple complex

PARIS (AP) — UNESCO is urging Cambodian authorities not to carry out forced evictions at the renowned Angkor Wat temple complex, after Amnesty International detailed the impact on evicted residents and accused the U.N. cultural agency of failing to challenge the Cambodian government over the issue.

UNESCO has now ordered Cambodia to submit a new report on the state of conservation of Angkor Wat by Feb. 1, and says that it should include a response to Amnesty’s findings. UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said Wednesday that living conditions for residents at the World Heritage site are a ‘’priority.''

Amnesty said in a report Tuesday that the evictions of an estimated 10,000 families by Cambodian authorities since last year violated international and national law. It said that the evicted people have received little or no compensation and that the government’s two main resettlement sites have inadequate facilities in terms of roads, water and electricity supplies and sanitation.

UNESCO said the report ‘’provides new light on the situation on the ground," and invited Amnesty representatives to the agency’s Paris headquarters to discuss it.

UNESCO said in a statement to The Associated Press that it ‘’calls on the Cambodian authorities to make an explicit commitment not to carry out forced evictions in Angkor and to ensure that all necessary corrective measures are put in place urgently to ensure full respect of all human rights for those communities concerned.’’

There are more than 1,200 World Heritage sites worldwide. Angkor Wat was given that status in 1992, in part because of fears that the growth of human settlements on the site posed a possible threat to its preservation.

However, the designation was not clear regarding existing settlements, which until last year were left basically undisturbed, the Amnesty report said. Cambodia is now keen to develop the area for tourism, which lapsed during the coronavirus pandemic.

Opening a conference on Angkor Wat, Azoulay said Wednesday: ‘’The aspirations and living conditions of local residents should be further taken into consideration, as requested by the World Heritage Committee. This is a priority for UNESCO. … It is a crucial responsibility to empower local communities, including the most vulnerable ones."

The king of Cambodia and Cambodian government officials were present as she spoke.

The Amnesty report quoted a speech that then-Prime Minister Hun Sen gave last year saying the site risked losing the World Heritage designation unless residents moved away. He said those who did not do so voluntarily would get no compensation.