Cambodia’s first juvenile justice law, in the works for nearly a decade, will be passed by the end of this year, according to the Ministry of Social of Affairs.
The law, an unofficial translation of which was obtained by the Post, comes after long-standing campaigns by civil society and international donors for Cambodia to afford basic internationally accepted rights to the hundreds of juveniles who face possible abuse, injustice and developmental harm as they pass through legal system designed strictly for adults.
Touch Channy, the ministry’s secretary general of technical affairs, yesterday confirmed that the law is currently under review with the Council of Ministers and is expected to arrive at the National Assembly by mid-year.
“There have, until now, been many challenges for those underage who commit crimes like rape, because we have no specific court or procedures to try them,” he explained. “Many have just been sent to prison and kept for a long time. But this law is to protect them.”
Although the age of criminal responsibility in Cambodia is 14, the Kingdom’s Penal Code has no separate laws to address juvenile offenders, leaving children facing the same legal prescriptions as adults and imprisoned alongside criminals of all ages.
Accordingly to NGO Plan International, which has worked closely with the ministry to develop the draft, there are currently more than 700 minors incarcerated around the country, the majority of them for drug-related offences or minor misdemeanours.
This reflects a dramatic increase from the 300 estimated in 2013 by NGO Licadho, and advocates say the new laws aim to redress incarceration rates through diversion, rehabilitation and social support.
“Jail is currently the first resort, not the last,” explained Sokunthea Sambath, Plan’s child rights technical coordinator. “Our view is that most children who come into conflict with the law are victims, not offenders, so the focus should be on diversion and community capacity-building.”
According to Sambath, joint juvenile and adult cells and the lack of education or vocational training in prisons means that child offenders most often learn from the bad examples set on the inside, placing them at higher risk of recidivism.
The draft law seeks to rectify these issues by designating dedicated spaces and staff for offenders of different ages and genders.
However, doubt has been cast on other protections outlined in the draft, in particular, prescriptions for juvenile “specialist” police, officials and prison staff.
“There is nothing here which guarantees their quality or expertise, for example, in background checks” for personnel dealing with juveniles, said human rights legal consultant, Billy Tai.
Also troubling, according to Tai, is the apparent lack of guaranteed legal representation for minors until 24 hours after arrest.
“This leaves a window in which potentially anything can happen in terms of coercion or signing-away rights to be accompanied by a social worker or lawyer,” he explained.
More questionable, Tai continued, is the capacity of the Cambodian state and judiciary to realise the new legal provisions.
“It remains to be seen how any of this will be carried out,” he added, describing the problem of juvenile justice as more a lack of political will than of law.
“As long as the international community is paying the bill for this, it is doubtful whether Cambodia’s legal system can take ownership of these laws.”
Additional reporting by Lay Samean