15 June 2011

ICBL Ambassador Tun Channareth (called Reth) received an honorary degree from Seattle University on 12 June 2011 for his fourteen years of campaigning against landmines.

Tun Channareth returned to his home in Siem Reap, Cambodia today after a two-week trip to the United States, where he received an honourary doctorate degree from Seattle University for his outstanding work in mine action. Reth was his usual energetic self despite being bleary-eyed and jet-lagged, and was happy to be interviewed on the time he spent in America.

When asked about the purpose of his trip, his response was that receiving the honourary doctorate was only part of his visit to Seattle: "I was also speaking to many different classes about the needs of landmine victims, and the difficulty for them to find a job and make a living. The busiest part of the trip was getting as many people as possible to sign the People's Treaty to Ban Landmines and Cluster Munitions. We want to push for progress in mine action and get America on board the Mine Ban Treaty and the Cluster Munitions Convention."

"I had many interviews with the university students and the Seattle University newspaper (the Spectator). I also had an interview with Voice of America and Wall Broadcast and both of these were in Khmer. On the other hand, I also gave a talk in a church, again to campaign for America to sign both treaties." At this stage in Reth's career, he is no stranger to public speaking engagements, and has given countless speeches to students, activists and press around the world since the early 1990s.

When asked what his message to the students was, he replied: "I asked the students and professors to sign the People's Treaty, but I cannot forget to add that I called for more funding for mine clearance, as well as to support victim assistance projects. My main point is that I want everyone in Seattle, and across the US, to open their hearts to allow for the growth of peace and justice in the world."

Reth is a confident speaker, pausing in reflection before answering questions candidly. He seemed very pleased with the types of questions he was asked by the students at Seattle University: "The students wanted to know how I first became involved in the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and Cluster Munitions. I told them my story, how I lost both my legs when I stepped on a landmine, and that this made me want to work towards a solution. I began working with the Sister Denise Coghlan at the Jesuit Service Cambodia, and she encouraged me to travel abroad, and to speak to people about the damage that landmines had done to me, and to tell them about all the other people in Cambodia who are like me, whose lives are affected by landmines."

"The students were also curious about what kind of work I'm involved with in Cambodia. I'm still working for the Jesuit Service Cambodia, working at a wheelchair production shop, where we make and distribute wheelchairs. We also run an outreach program to villages in rural Cambodia, providing houses, wells, and helping people to find jobs so that they can escape poverty."

The elephant in the room was addressed when one student asked Reth why the United States had not joined either the Mine Ban Treaty or the Cluster Munitions Convention: "Oh, this was a difficult question, because it's complicated. I think that the United States is still very concerned with security issues, and this makes it hard for them to ban both of these weapons. Also, maybe the US government is not ready to spend the money it takes to destroy their stockpiles of landmines and cluster munitions. These reasons might have caused a delay in the US signing the treaties, but I am still hopeful that one day America will get on board."

Reth has visited the United States several times before, but says that he learns something new each time he returns. "This trip was very important to me, because I learned so much from the people at Seattle University. Everyone was so kind, and I could see that they opened their hearts to me. I saw their desire to be a part of this movement, and that they are ready to help promote peace and healing for people of all nations."

Tun Channareth is renowned throughout the world as the recipient of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, and he remarked: "When we started work on the Mine Ban Campaign, we never once thought of the Nobel Peace Prize. We were only concerned with the real lives of real people around the world. I received the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, but I also received it on behalf of landmine victims and all disabled people across the world."

Reth articulated this humble sentiment again when asked to comment on receiving the honourary doctorate from Seattle University: "During the commencement ceremony my announcement was that the doctorate degree does not belong to me; it belongs to all the people from around the world, so they can see what is really happening."

"I feel so happy, and my heart is filled with pride. But this degree is not just a gift; it's a responsibility. And I cannot carry the whole world by myself! No one can. I need friends. I need brothers and sisters. Only together as neighbours will we make a change in the world through our commitment to ban landmines and cluster munitions."

While Tun Channareth's hosts in Seattle are still absorbing the meaning in his words, Reth will return to his usual work routine at the wheelchair shop this week. In doing so he proves once again that he is a man whose devotion to peace reveals itself in a practical, everyday service to the people of his country.

By Adrian Gregorich, Cambodia Campaign to Ban Landmines