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NGOs list suggested govt reform

Land and resource revenues top groups’ development concerns

LAND rights, the environment and extractive-industry revenue transparency are the focus of civil society recommendations released ahead of landmark government-donor meetings scheduled for next week.

The documents, released at a workshop in Phnom Penh on Tuesday, assess the government’s progress on the series of reform benchmarks – known as Joint Monitoring Indicators (JMIs) – that are tied to disbursals of foreign development aid.

The workshop comes ahead of the Cambodia Development Cooperation Forum (CDCF), scheduled for June 2-3, at which donors will assess the government’s progress on previously agreed upon JMIs and set development priorities for the next 18 months.

At the last CDCF meeting, held in December 2008, donors pledged US$951.5 million in development assistance, up from $689 million the year before, according to an IMF estimate released in September.

Among the chief concerns registered in the NGO position papers were the issues of natural resources and land rights.

“Despite the fact that the rights of indigenous peoples in Cambodia are recognised by both national and international law, across the country there are severe violations of indigenous peoples’ land and resource rights,” one paper stated, calling for the full implementation of the 2001 Land Law.

Resource revenue transparency also looms large over next week’s CDCF meetings, following a disclosure by Prime Minister Hun Sen last month that French oil giant Total paid a total of $28 million to secure offshore oil exploration rights in the Gulf of Thailand.

In a statement issued April 29, Global Witness, a London-based watchdog, said that the CDCF meetings should be used as an opportunity for donors to “ask tough questions” about such payments and whether they have been registered in national accounts.

A position paper authored by Cambodians for Resource Revenue Transparency applauds the government for introducing a Public Financial Management Reform Programme, which includes a pledge to implement the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI), an international benchmark for the extractive resources industry.

The paper calls on the government to “prioritise implementation of EITI” in 2010-2011 and promote “other policy measures that strengthen transparency in oil, gas and mining, most notably transparency in licensing”.

Other areas flagged by NGOs include agriculture, gender-based violence, education, health and environmental protection, especially as it relates to a series of large-scale hydropower dams currently slated for construction on Cambodia’s rivers.

Calls for transparency
Son Chhay, a Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker, said donors should take the opportunity to push the government to improve its transparency with respect to resource revenue payments and other areas.

“The donors have full rights to demand the government be transparent before they offer more money,” he said.

“How can you talk about good governance when the government is not prepared to be accountable?”

Other critics said the very architecture of the pledging process is geared in favour of continued government impunity.

“One of the major problems is that the JMIs are not binding and therefore have no teeth,” said Eleanor Nichol, a Global Witness campaigner. “Aid flows continue despite the lack of implementation of, or progress towards, the JMIs.”

One government official said, however, that there had been significant steps towards transparency, achievements that Western donors recognised.

“We are not just talking transparency: We are creating it through the system,” said Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, citing the Law on Anticorruption, passed by the National Assembly in March, and administrative reforms as key milestones.

Donors “understand that we have started to make this country more and more transparent through the system, through procedures and through the law”, he added.

Son Chhay said, however, that the government had proved itself adept at manipulating donors, and that the stance of Western governments was tempered by the increasing influence of China, a country that does not participate in the CDCF process.

Sin Somuny, executive director of Medicam, an umbrella organisation for health NGOs, said the CDCF process is valuable for promoting a culture of open exchange between government authorities and NGOs.

“We have to change the culture of discussion among politicians and civil society,” he said. “We have to build a culture of discussion.”

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