AS lawmakers prepare to debate the draft of the government’s anti-graft law today, rights groups have called on the National Assembly to delay the session in order to address key concerns about the long-awaited but controversial document.
On Tuesday, a coalition representing more than 200 local NGOs petitioned parliament for a one-month delay of the debate, saying the current draft offers whistle-blowers few protections and would do little to combat graft.
“The law is not sufficient to serve the Cambodian people, and we hope that the government and the National Assembly will consider our request for a month to study the law and consult with the people,” Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, told reporters on Tuesday.
“The anticorruption bodies will not work with full effectiveness if the principles and points of view of civil society are not included in the draft law.”
If passed this week, the draft Anticorruption Law will create a National Anticorruption Council and an Anticorruption Unit. The commission, which would consist of 11 members chosen by the King, Senate, National Assembly and eight other government institutions, would be responsible for the government’s overall anticorruption strategy and would report directly to Prime Minister Hun Sen. The Anticorruption Unit, which would operate separately under the Council of Ministers, would be responsible for the day-to-day investigation of corruption inside the public and private sectors.
In their list of recommendations to the National Assembly, the NGOs called for political party operatives to be banned from sitting on the proposed council and requested stronger protections for whistle-blowers under Article 41 of the law.
“This law should encourage people to provide information related to corruption,” the document stated.
The groups also called for officials’ assets to be declared publicly.
Speaking on a radio talk show on Tuesday evening, opposition leader Sam Rainsy said he doubted the law would be effective in reducing graft, and that a 2006 draft composed by international experts had apparently been “thrown out” by the government.
“The Anticorruption Law that will be approved by the National Assembly tomorrow will be useless, and people should focus on electing a leader who can curb corruption,” he said.
The government has thus far dismissed concerns raised about the draft, and Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said this week that the National Assembly debate would allow for sufficient discussion of it.
Lessons from the region
The experiences of other countries in the region suggest that the passage of the Anticorruption Law will do little to erode Cambodia’s endemic graft.
A World Bank paper published in 2004 noted that for poor, aid-dependent countries, anticorruption commissions may represent efforts “to satisfy international donors and placate domestic calls for reform” rather than eradicate corrupt practices.
The paper argued that such councils fail “in all but a few special circumstances”, resulting in “minimal” reforms and toothless institutions.
In Indonesia, where anticorruption laws are implemented by law enforcement agencies and a corruption eradication commission (KPK), local activists say powerful officials continue to undermine the campaign against graft.
“In general, the performance of the police and the attorney-general’s office are still below expectation,” said Illian Deta Arta Sari, an activist at the Jakarta-based Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW).
She said that since its establishment in 2004, the KPK, which reports to the legislature rather than the president, has been subject to various attacks by “corrupt bureaucrats and legislative officials”.
These culminated in the arrest last year of KPK deputy commissioners Bibit S Rianto and Chandra M Hamzah on charges of abuse of power and extortion, a move Sari described as part of a deliberate campaign to muzzle the KPK.
Alan Doig, an anticorruption expert at the UN Office of Drugs and Crime in Bangkok, said conflicts between agencies, as in Jakarta, would be just one of the potential challenges for Cambodia.
“Passing the law is not an end in itself – it’s the beginning of an incremental process,” he said.
Doig said that, as in neighbouring Thailand, Cambodia’s anti-graft law has been framed much too broadly and does not take into account the sheer amount of bureaucratic resources it will likely absorb.
He noted that the anticorruption commission in Bangkok has a staff of 600, and that its Malaysian counterpart has around 2,000 employees operating across the region.
There is also the issue of how widely to cast the asset-disclosure net, which Doig flagged as a potential bottleneck for Cambodia’s new institutions.
“Unless you have a large amount of money, you could have a difficult time deciding what your priorities are,” Doig said. “I can’t see any real capacity in Cambodia.”
Overall, Doig said the government has not given itself enough time to address these sorts of logistical concerns.
“I think that they missed a good opportunity to shape the law to cover the priorities they want to address,” he said.
“The real problem is: what do they want to do with this law? And I don’t think they’re very clear about that.”