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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Justice served: local mediation sidesteps litigation

Justice served: local mediation sidesteps litigation

Conflict in rural communities can be costly in many ways. Resolving conflicts through

the court system can be expensive and time-consuming, the judgment can create rifts

within communities, and the whole process is often marred by corrupt officials.

A pilot project run by the NGO Buddhism for Development (BFD) is investigating a

different way of dealing with conflict in rural areas. Where possible, disputes are

being worked out at a local level with the help of volunteers from within the community.

"Our aim is to bring elders who are supported and trusted by the people in their

commune to play a role for conciliation at the commune level, and to reduce violent

behavior that could occur from the simple quarrel," said Nob Boran, BFD project

officer.

BFD is currently testing the system in the four provinces of Banteay Meanchey, Battambang,

Oddar Meanchey and Kampong Thom. Of the 1,621 commune councils across the country,

55 are involved in BFD's pilot project. Each commune council elects five people from

the community to act as the local conflict resolution committee. Committees can include

commune council members, laymen, monks, village chiefs, and respected old men and

women from within the community. The key criteria is that the mediators are trusted

by their community.

Boran says there are many problems that commonly occur: divorce, complaints about

properties and inheritance, use of wells, debt, land and land boundary disputes,

crop damage caused by animals, verbal quarrels between neighbors, housing and land

entrance disputes, domestic violence, and trees growing over land boundaries.

These simple problems can lead to unnecessary court cases, says Heng Thary, a volunteer

from Achaleak commune in Kampong Thom province. "We found that some simple disputes

were turning into serious cases resulting in complaints to the court, which is the

way to make people poorer, and waiting for a hearing is a waste of time," said

Thary.

The Kampong Thom project is the most recent addition to the BFD initiative. BFD was

granted $5,000 under the World Bank's Small Grants Program (May 2004 to May 2005)

to set up conflict resolution committees in 11 communes within Kampong Thom's Stung

Sen district.

Nine months on, the Kampong Thom project is well on the way to helping communities

deal with their own problems. Thary says people in her commune have begun to realize

court cases can be very expensive. Now, they prefer to solve disputes through local

conciliation rather than by complaining to the provincial court.

She says a further benefit of the project is that both complainants end up being

satisfied with the result, whereas a court case creates a winner and a loser. "I

think that a court decision creates an idea of right and wrong, therefore after the

court case, a culture of hating each other in the same village or commune is created

- this causes a loss of unity in Khmer society."

The cost of litigation can also have a ruinous effect on communities. "I see

our people lose their houses, their land and their property while they try to win

cases in the courts, "said Touch Than, a volunteer from the Damrei Chonkla commune

committee in Kampong Thom. "Our work saves them a lot of time and money."

Heng Thary estimates about 60 percent of disputes in her commune now get solved through

local conciliation and that involved parties believe the judgments are fair.

The Stung Sen district committees acknowledge their capacity is limited in legal

terms - they cannot mediate criminal cases, only simple disputes. However, with early

intervention, minor conflicts can be prevented from becoming violent and turning

into criminal cases.

Preventing criminal cases is an important part of the BFD project. Many people are

detained illegally by police while awaiting trial, says Ham Sunrith, prison monitoring

officer for human rights NGO Licadho. As of December 2004, at least 125 people were

detained in excess of the legal pretrial detention period of six months, according

to Licadho's monitoring of 18 out of Cambodia's 26 prisons.

Sunrith says there are many problems with the system. "It's not only the person

who implements the law, the whole system is weak. They don't have enough budget to

run the legal system in our country," said Sunrith. Knowledge of the legal process

is limited in rural areas, so people don't know their legal entitlements. He says

there is often a delay in delivering summons due to lack of communication between

the court and witnesses. Many times, money is extracted from those trying to speed

up the process. "The culture of corruption exists, if you give something to

the court, your case would be prioritized," said Sunrith.

Sunrith thinks the BFD project is a good idea, but is concerned there will not be

enough people to act as mediators. "It's the best option for the society to

have conciliation resolution, but the question is, do we have the human resources

to do this?"

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) conducted a survey on alternative dispute

settlement that will be submitted to the government in June to help with judicial

reform policies. Kong Rady, a legal and judicial reform consultant at UNDP, says

their aim is to improve access to justice for all Cambodian people. "We want

the government or the Council for Legal and Judicial Reform to realize about the

real situation of conciliation at the local level, and to establish the mechanism

for dispute settlement that would function smoothly and not break the law,"

he said.

BFD director Heng Mony-chenda says if the project continues to prove successful,

it will be submitted to the government for consideration as a national policy.

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