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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - CPP assailed by rights groups, again

CPP assailed by rights groups, again

Pervasive land grabbing and the calculated erosion of political opponents consistently

surfaced in five damming end-of-year reports from major local and international human

rights organizations.

"There is not even a semblance of rule of law in country," said Basil Fernando,

director of the Asian Human Rights Commission, said. "It is not the law that

is king; it is the prime minister who is king in this country."

The last year has seen a distinct centralization of political control, said one Western

diplomat on condition of anonymity.

"Practically everything is controlled by one party," the diplomat said.

"The CPP control the government, the National Assembly, the Senate, 99 percent

of the village chiefs, the provincial government. Their influence goes through the

judiciary, through the police. There should be a much stronger balance of power and

system of checks and balances."

If a state does not adhere to the rule of law and is unfettered by checks and balances,

power will be exercised in a way that makes human rights violations, such as those

documented over the course of 2006, an inevitability, said Fernando.

"Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely," he said. "In

Cambodia there is naked repression, there is no protection: law is unable to protect

[citizens], the courts are unable to protect, the police [force] is a direct instrument

of the powers that be."

The political opposition has been weakened considerably over 2006, said a year-end

Human Rights Watch report.

"Cambodia's veneer of political pluralism wore even thinner in 2006," the

report said. "The year saw the jailing of government critics, attempts to weaken

civil society, independent media, and political dissent."

The opposition has struggled to maintain its ability to challenge the government,

said Mu Sochua, secretary-general of the Sam Rainsy Party.

"Who is speaking loudly, persistently regarding the lack, the total disarray

of social justice, regarding the corruption of judiciary?" she said." It

is the opposition, members, leaders, not just MPs but the grass roots."

Despite attempts by the opposition to challenge and criticize, Cambodia's development

will be destabilized if the government is able to behave in 2007 as it did in 2006,

said Sochua.

"The rule of law is not only lacking [but its absence will] drag Cambodia's

development into total disarray if it is allowed to erode further," she said.

The international community has failed to grasp the fundamental importance of the

rule of law for development, said Fernando.

"There is an inability to link development with rule of law," he said.

"Donors talk abstractly about development and democracy but they don't realize

the link is the rule of law."

The time has come for less "back door" diplomacy and more direct action,

said Sochua.

"The money that is spent on Cambodia is not free, it is taxpayers money,"

she said. "Every single one of the representatives of [foreign] governments

in Cambodia must be responsible and that responsibility lies in having the courage

to stand up when ethnic minorities, when the poor, continue to loose their land and

their livelihoods, when our forests are raped, totally raped, when there is a court,

a judiciary, [that is] nothing but a mockery, a masquerade of more and more injustice."

The international community is trying hard to foster the development of rule of law

in Cambodia, said the diplomatic source.

"Our constructive criticism really goes to the nuts and bolts," said the

diplomat. "You need a clear separation of powers, this has been repeatedly said."

But Kek Galabru, president of local rights group Licadho, said the fact remains that

Cambodia's executive dominates both the legislative and judicial branches of government.

"There is no separation of power," she said. "The executive always

interfere [with the courts]."

The ramifications of this lack of separation of the powers extends far beyond the

immediate infringements of individual citizen's civil liberties, she said.

"Cambodia is now a member of WTO," said Galabru. "They ask for a lot

of conditions and one of them is the independence of the judiciary. How can serious

investors come to Cambodia [without this?]"

Without the rule of law, economic as well as human development is compromised, said

Fernando.

"Rule of law is not just a question of civil liberties, it is about the management

of society," he said. "Cambodia is a mismanaged society, mismanaged to

irrational level."

The development of rule of law in Cambodia is being deliberately hindered by the

elite who are benefiting financially from their draconian grip on power, said Fernando.

"It is for economic benefit," he said. "The rule of law is not allowed

to develop in order to [allow the elite to] carry on with certain types of exploitation.

The [absence of a] rule of law is bound with the political elite maintaining the

status quo: a small number of very powerful people distinct from the rest of country

which is very poor and will continue to be."

Yet "irrational" management and preventing the development of the rule

of law is a contradictory policy that will ultimately backfire, said Fernando.

"At some time there is bound to be a reaction among elite: what is security

of OUR property?" he said. "The implication of no rule of law runs into

all areas of the economy. You can't maintain proper banking so you have much money

laundering, you can't determine the value of local currency so no person, even the

wealthy, feels secure. No one wants to buy land unless they have state patronage.

On one hand, while there is this repression in the interests of the property owning

class [Cambodia] can't forever remain at this level. You have to enter a modern economy.

Cambodia's future is tied to regional economies and there are so many possibilities

for its development all around. But all that is negated by the present form of the

management."

Om Yentieng, adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen and head of the government's human

rights committee said that the human rights situation in Cambodia had improved over

the course of 2006.

"The human rights situation in Cambodia in 2006 is better than before,"

he said. "We have seen an end of the pretrial detention procedure, we have reformed

our prisons, the general economic situation is good, the media is also able to write

freely."

Although land grabbing is a problem, it is incorrect to cast it as a violation of

human rights, he said.

"Land grabbing is not a case of human rights abuse," he said. "These

cases happen from the law, many powerful people have also lost their cases at the

court regarding land grabbing - it is not human rights abuse."

The government is open to criticism, he said, but confident of its own rights record.

"We don't want to say the [NGOs] are always right but we take into consideration

the points they raise," he said. "We are happy that the real situation

of human rights in Cambodia is not bad or serious like what those NGOs report."

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