When Seiha (not his real name) hit his wife during a quarrel last year, she didn’t call police or even a divorce lawyer – she called their commune chief.
Over the course of a few months, the couple met their new mediator both separately and together to lay out their sides of the story and demands.
“The wife said – please stop drinking, stop making violence to me, stop going outside at nighttime and help do something in the house, and the husband was OK with that,” said Chhan Sokunthea, coordinator of alternative dispute resolution at Adhoc, the NGO that assisted in the case.
Eventually, they were able to hammer out an informal agreement with terms acceptable to both of them – hung above their bed for easy reference during future disputes.
The couple has since shown improvement during the three-month follow-up period, said Chhan Sokunthea, in what she said was an example of a successful case of an alternative dispute resolution method used in Cambodia for years and an entrenched part of culture. But recently, the potential for abuse in such mechanisms has prompted calls for stricter policing of the system.
Mediation is popular as a form of conflict resolution because of its low cost and no-fuss system, said the head of Adhoc’s women’s section, Chuon Chamrong.
“The victims and their families do not spend their time and money to participate in the court process, as they are very poor,” she said.
It is also popular for its suitability in certain cases, such as small conflicts between family members or minors.
However, sometimes cases more suitable for the penal system are wrongfully subjected to mediation, rights workers say.
Resolution through mediation by local authorities took place in 11.34 per cent of rape cases in 2011, Adhoc’s latest report on women’s rights in Cambodia notes, adding the use of mediation has been a “significant obstacle in the process of reducing instances of rape”.
“Mediation could be helpful for minor crimes or civil conflict, but it leads to a culture of impunity, especially with rape, because of a weakness of law enforcement in preventing such crimes from happening,” said Chuon Chamrong.
In one instance last year, a rape victim and her family agreed to “resolve” the complaint by having the victim marry her rapist, the end result of which was divorce and a lack of consequences for the perpetrator.
According to executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project Sok Sam Ouen, such wrongful uses of the process stem from the inability of parties to choose their own mediator and a lack of conflict management skills.
“Both sides should have the freedom to choose [a mediator]…right now, in many cases, they’re reconciled by the village chief as the only authority. Most of [the village chiefs] have no mediation skill,” he said. This was exacerbated by the lack of a concept of mediation as independent and neutral.
“Sometimes they only want to finish the problems, use power to pressure parties,” he said.
However, such issues are prompting the Ministry of Interior to embark on a review of mediation at the local level this year. The ministry’s secretary of state, Chou Bun Eng, said there was a need to bring in third parties who could facilitate the resolution of conflicts.
“We would like to involve more representatives or key persons who can work alongside, with some parts [played] by people from NGOs … sometimes we try to think about the roles and responsibilities so there can be benefits,” she said.
The growing number of NGOs getting involved in mediation have also recognised a need to issue strict mandates for their own efforts in the field, said Chhan Sokunthea.
For example, Adhoc only handles first-time incidents of domestic violence and refuses to be involved with what are clearly criminal cases.
But while more may benefit as such organisations branch out to provide mediation services, others may find more headaches created for them.
“We are afraid that the court or local authorities … may think that Adhoc is one of the ‘tigers’ of the area,” said Chhan Sokunthea. “If Adhoc does not participate in these cases, the local authorities, commune chief or court can ask money from the victims. But when Adhoc is involved, they cannot.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Cassandra Yeap at email@example.com