The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights yesterday unveiled the first ever annotated version of Cambodia’s Code of Criminal Procedure, a tool they say could ultimately promote stronger rule of law in Cambodia’s oft-criticised domestic courts.
According to OHCHR country director Wan-Hea Lee, annotated codes of criminal procedure – which refine articles from the criminal code by coupling them with examples of how they have been ruled upon in courts like the Khmer Rouge tribunal – help lawyers craft more sophisticated legal arguments, thereby elevating Cambodia’s courtroom dynamics.
“I have no doubt that the Annotated Code will encourage a shift in Cambodian legal practice through enhanced legal reasoning, increased references to jurisprudence, and the future production of similar resources for other fields of law,” Lee wrote in the code’s foreword before urging legal practitioners to put the new text to good use.
Speaking at the code’s launch, Lee said that such annotated codes “reduce the subjectivity behind legal verdicts”.
Khmer Rouge tribunal prosecutor William Smith, one of the lawyers who presented the idea for the code to the OHCHR, said at the same event that he hoped the code could “contribute to accelerating the goal of seeing the rule of law in Cambodia”.
However, some legal practitioners and observers yesterday said that, while positive, the code would face challenges getting Cambodia’s recalcitrant domestic legal system to favour true rule of law.
“First, jurisprudence is rarely applied” in Cambodian courts, said Panhavuth Long, a program officer with the Cambodian Justice Initiative. “See the [limited] resources available to the courts, the political influence . . . It may take a lot of time for the [jurisprudence] that the [tribunal] applied to take hold.”
Nonetheless, he added, the code “is good, because it’s a resource for legal practitioners, so it’s up to individuals to decide how they want to use it”.
Defence attorney Dun Vibol, on the other hand, was even more sceptical of the code’s prospects, given Cambodian judges’ unwillingness to entertain legal arguments.
“Sometimes I mention every point of law, jurisprudence . . . but even so, in reality, the Cambodian court never tries the case based on jurisprudence,” he said. “We raise this point, but I never think that a judge will ever listen.”
But according to Smith, the prosecutor, “if one actor in the courtroom starts to offer more sophisticated arguments, then naturally, the standards [will rise]”.