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Cambodia worst in region for rule of law: report

Prisoners leave the Phnom Penh Municipal Court last year.
Prisoners leave the Phnom Penh Municipal Court last year. Hong Menea

Cambodia worst in region for rule of law: report

Cambodia ranked 112 out of 113 countries surveyed globally and dead last in the East Asia and Pacific region when it comes to the perceived rule of law, a new report released today states.

The annual Rule of Law Index, published by the legal non-profit World Justice Project, measures how rule of law is perceived in countries around the world by scoring eight factors: constraints on government powers, absence of corruption, open government, fundamental rights, order and security, regulatory enforcement, civil justice and criminal justice.

Of the 15 countries surveyed from the East Asia and Pacific region, Cambodia scored lowest and New Zealand highest, with countries like Mongolia and Malaysia falling somewhere in between. Among all 113 countries rated worldwide, Cambodia came in 112, scoring just below Afghanistan and above only Venezuela, a country experiencing food shortages and frequent violence.

“Cambodia is a country that is struggling in many areas, and I was hoping to see a little bit of progress since last year,” said the World Justice Program’s Alejandro Ponce, one of the study’s authors.

Cambodia dropped two points in the ranking since last year’s report. Order and security, which refers to the absence of violent crime and civil conflict, was the only factor for which Cambodia received a slightly less dismal score, ranking number 81 out of 113 countries. But the country still remained in the bottom third for all eight factors identified, scoring the lowest in civil justice, with absence of corruption and open governance trailing close behind.

Rule of law index ASEAN ranking

Cambodia’s courts are among its most maligned institutions. Last September, a delegation from the International Bar Association slammed Cambodia’s judiciary as riddled with corruption and political influence and called on the body to consider booting the Kingdom’s bar association from its ranks.

More recently a slew of questionable court cases against rights workers and members of the opposition amid a period of elevated tensions have been decried as baldly political. Just last week, UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith said that she had raised concerns with the Justice Minister over the seemingly flimsy cases, saying she feared “the depth of evidence does not meet the international standards of proof”.

According to Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, pervasive corruption in nearly all sectors of society is contributing to Cambodia’s low ranking. Government leaders will need to crack down on corruption, especially in the country’s judicial system if rule of law is to be strengthened in the Kingdom, Preap said.

“Fighting corruption must genuinely be on top of the government agenda in practice, not just in political propaganda or rhetoric,” Preap said yesterday, adding that the government should sign up for the Open Government Partnership, an international initiative that aims to secure commitments from governments to promote transparency and good governance.

“We believe [it] will change the Cambodian outlook and significantly improve its image,” he added.

The report’s authors used a general population poll that surveyed a representative sample of 1,000 respondents from the three largest cities of each country, Ponce explained. Questionnaires were also given to in-country experts on topics like civil law, criminal justice and public health.

Those surveyed were asked to rate everything from freedom of association to the right to information and non-discrimination in the criminal justice system.

“There are questions about experiences people have encountered, so whether they have paid a bribe to the police, or if they paid a bribe to access public health systems, or what their experience was if they requested information,” Ponce explained.

“So this is a reflection of whether people feel they find justice or not.”

Sinathay Neb, director of Cambodia’s Advocacy and Policy Institute, noted that access to information, a field in which Cambodia scores low, is key to ensuring that the government responds to citizens’ needs.

“Without a clear mechanism and legal framework for open information and citizens’ right to know, [a lack of rule of law] will continue to affect the development of the country and citizens’ lives,” Neb said.

Government spokesman Phay Sipha, however, was dismissive of the report’s findings, which he characterised as “biased”.

"Cambodia’s government doesn’t care about ranking, because [the report] serves its own purpose,” he said. “It’s biased and selective; they do their own research for their own interest."

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