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The ‘weak’ pillars of society

The judiciary and law enforcement agencies are Cambodia’s weakest institutions, while the country’s executive branch and civil society are its strongest, according to an expansive, landmark report released by Transparency International Cambodia (TI) yesterday.

The ambitious study, called the National Integrity System Assessment (NISA), spends 233 pages rating the “state of the governance system” by examining 13 institutions, or “pillars”, by way of expert interviews, the examination of data (mostly from 2012 and 2013), and an extensive literary and legal review.

However, even the country’s two highest-scoring pillars – civil society and the executive, with 48 and 43 points out of 100, respectively – failed to exceed a “moderate” ranking.

“The assessment reveals that overall, Cambodia has a weak integrity system,” the report reads. “It is not strong enough to uphold the rule of law, ensure sustainable development, and a good quality of life for the population at large.”

Cambodia’s judiciary scored a “very weak” 16 points in the assessment, which described the courts – excluding military courts and the Khmer Rouge tribunal – as being beset by “political interference, understaffing, inadequate training of staff, limited financial resources, and the absence of key laws”.

The judicial branch’s tiny budget, just 0.42 per cent of the national budget in 2013, demonstrates “a low commitment to the rule of law” and “results in high levels of corruption and inefficiency”, the NISA continues.

UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Cambodia (UNOHCHR) head Wan-Hea Lee, who spoke on a panel during the report’s launch yesterday, said that the judiciary was plagued by an “organic system of corruption from top to bottom”.

TI RECOMMENDATIONS


THE JUDICIARY
• Provide salary incentives to judges tied to performance and integrity
• Implement a transparent and competitive process for recruitment of judges with an independent appointments body
• Ensure all courtrooms are open to the public
• Publish decisions of judges
• Introduce a course on the judiciary into high schools
- Review the three key judicial laws recently passed


ACCESS TO INFORMATION LAW
• Pass an access to information law that should include, among other provisions, an obligation for government bodies to publish and disseminate essential information, clear procedures to access this information, a system to offer it free of charge or at minimal costs, and whistleblower protection
• Create an independent oversight body to ensure that the information law is properly implemented and followed


THE ANTI-CORRUPTION LAW
• Remove provisions that the ACU chairperson and vice-chairperson are appointed at the request of the premier
• Institute a public recruitment process for the hiring of ACU officials
• Guarantee whistleblower protection
• Require all adult children and spouses of officials to also declare their assets, and make asset declarations public
• Make ACU reports public


THE PUBLIC SECTOR
• Create an independent committee to govern public servants that sets out transparent standards for recruitment, promotions and salaries
• Educate Cambodians about the difference between the government, the public sector and the private sector
• Publish details of expenditure, procurement contracts and service fees at public agencies and ministries
• Ensure civil servants are paid adequately

Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin declined to comment on the contents of the report yesterday, but maintained that the courts work closely with anti-corruption officials, and that “tough measures were taken on judges, prosecutors and clerks who committed corruption”.

According to the NISA, however, the judiciary’s sub-score for accountability was zero.

Indeed, the report found that the country’s various anti-corruption entities were also “weak,” with a score of 34 out of 100.

Anti-Corruption Unit chief Om Yentieng yesterday slammed TI Cambodia for criticising the ACU while also working with them under a memorandum of understanding.

“How can we be shaking hands with each other with one hand, while fighting each other with the other?… We are both independent institutions. We are equal. Why do they need to always come out and give commands to us?”

The Kingdom’s second-weakest pillar, the study found, was its law enforcement agencies – comprising the National Police, military police and public prosecutors – which earned a score of 22. In the agencies, “low-level corruption and bribery is commonplace, impeding public trust”, the report found.

“Moreover, excessive use of force by both the national police and Gendarmerie [military police], and the lack of credible investigations into such cases, highlights the limited accountability of these agencies” despite the existence of legal mechanisms regarding that accountability, the report says.

Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, which oversees the Kingdom’s police, forcefully decried what he characterised as condescension and imprecision in the NISA’s findings yesterday.

“Law enforcement officers are not their students, and TI is not our teacher who has to score us,” he said. "Please be informed there are some individuals who are corrupt, but not [the ministry] as a whole.”

Sopheak went on to say that ministry employees make considerably less than those of TI.

The NISA, however, also mentions the inadequacy of police salaries, the lowest of which are “scarcely above the international definition of extreme poverty”, and which prompt an endemic culture of bribe-taking.

But substantial gaps between legal frameworks and their implementation exist even in the highest-functioning pillars of government, the NISA found.

For example, legally speaking, the independence of the Kingdom’s executive branch is unassailable, though it can be checked by the National Assembly, which has the power to summons its members for questioning.

In reality, however, “it is closely linked to the ruling [party] and power-holders within the intra-elite patronage system”, the NISA says.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan, who spoke to NISA researchers for the report, said yesterday that the executive was taking steps to improve, and pointed to successful measures such as the government’s new One Window Service Offices, which the NISA also referred to as a positive step towards transparency. “Any issues that they’ve raised, that’s being resolved gradually,” he said.

The country’s strongest institution, according to the NISA, is its civil society sector, which scored a “moderate” 48 points on TI’s scale. However, even its capabilities are limited, and may be under threat from a draft Law on Organizations and NGOs, which has the “potential to restrict civil society space”.

Though the concerns listed in the NISA are exhaustive – and often times, common knowledge – the government has long deflected criticisms over corruption, regularly pointing out that even developed countries like the United States struggle with the same problem. However, said the UNOHCHR’s Lee, such comparisons were misleading.

“Every country in the world fights corruption in certain sectors, but not every country is one of the 20 most corrupt in the world,” she said.

As recently as last month, Prime Minister Hun Sen said that some of the blame for corruption lay with the businesses that paid the bribes, but TI executive director Preap Kol also called such deflections counter-productive.

“If we get a diagnosis, and say, ‘No, I don’t have that disease,’ it isn’t helpful”.

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