NEARLY 800 youths currently serve time in Cambodian prisons, but a draft juvenile justice law, made public yesterday by government officials, could change that trend.
Government officials met with civil society groups at a national conference in Phnom Penh to invite input and gain support for its bid to push the long-awaited legislation towards completion.
The government has been working on the law, which currently contains 15 chapters and 86 articles, since 2000.
“The objectives of the law are to ensure respect of the rights of minors in conflict with the law, protect the rights and best interest of minors in conflict with the law and victims, support rehabilitation and reintegration of minors in conflict with the law into society and the community, and protect society’s and the community’s interests,” said Ith Samheng, minister of social affairs.
“This is the first time ever that our country has a special separate law for the child like other developed countries,” he said.
Anna Sunga, a child protection specialist with UNICEF who has provided technical assistance to the government on the law, said it was “premature to actually assess the law because it’s not final”. However, she said the current draft meets international standards.
“Its basic framework definitely is compliant with international standards. But of course, the details still have to be completed.”
Some of those details, she said, would be worked out in secondary legislation.
Sunga said the draft bill “emphasises the use of detention as a last result for minors”, gives primacy to the “best interest” of the child and includes child participation in judicial proceedings – all international principles for children’s rights.
“The judicial system should be the measure of last resort,” said Hy Sophea, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Justice.
Sunga said NGOs, including a coalition focused on children’s rights, have been involved in the lengthy legislative process through two national consultations. She expected comments from NGOs on the draft bill to be recorded for consideration by the Council of Jurists and the Council of Ministers.
The 2009 penal code, which went into effect on Friday in Phnom Penh and will be enacted en force around the country on December 20, also includes several provisions that provide more options for minors.
Minors who have committed an offense under the penal code are subject to measures of surveillance, education, protection and assistance. Criminal convictions for minors over the age of 14 are also allowed, but alternatives appear to be given priority. A criminal sentence for a minor must be justified by the circumstances of the case, and a sentence cannot be more than half of the same sentence for an adult, with 20 years for a life sentence.
A range of options are available to judges confronted with delinquent juveniles, including handing over the minor to his or her parents or guardian, a social service agency, a qualified private organisation, a hospital or institution, or judicial protection. The code does not specify how such determinations ought to be made.
The new draft juvenile justice law fills in a number of gaps in the penal code, Sunga said, adding that it is not yet final and that much work remains to be done.
“For the law to work, there has to be a commitment of the government to invest in alternatives to detention and diversion programs and measures. There has to be lots of resources,” she said.