Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Celebration comes with threat as Cambodia’s Constitution turns 24

Celebration comes with threat as Cambodia’s Constitution turns 24

Constitutional Council head Im Chhum Lim marks the 24th anniversary of the Constitution yesterday.
Constitutional Council head Im Chhum Lim marks the 24th anniversary of the Constitution yesterday. Heng Chivoan

Celebration comes with threat as Cambodia’s Constitution turns 24

Senior government officials yesterday gathered to celebrate the 24th anniversary of the adoption of the Kingdom’s Constitution, lavishing praise on the Constitutional Council – while simultaneously appearing to threaten legal action against those who question the body’s independence or decisions.

Speaking to reporters at yesterday’s event, council member and spokesman Uth Chhorn seemed to suggest that independent assessments of constitutionality and the questioning of the council’s rulings were a violation of the body’s rights.

“If they [the analysts] say something that violates someone’s rights, the law will be the one to decide,” he said. “Do you know what the Criminal Code is? If they violated your rights and insulted you, you wouldn’t be happy. In order to make amends, what would they have to pay for the damage to your reputation? It’s the court’s decision.”

But despite officials’ insistence that the body remained impartial, human rights groups and legal advocates criticised the organisation as being largely under the control of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

Legal analyst Sok Sam Oeun said the council has rarely – if ever – gone against the interests of the ruling party, largely because the CPP controls the National Assembly and the courts.

“It’s hard to reform these constitutional bodies and make sure they’re independent enough and separate them from political parties,” he said.

Indeed, the council’s president, Im Chhum Lim, is a permanent member of the CPP’s Central Committee.

Established by law in 1993, the Constitutional Council is made up of nine members – three appointed by the National Assembly, three by the Supreme Council of Magistracy and three by the King.

When asked to do so, the council assesses the constitutionality of new and existing laws and amendments. However, one of the council’s most critical decisions – a 2004 ruling allowing the National Assembly to amend the Constitution by a simple majority, as opposed to a two-thirds vote – actually served to threaten the integrity of the charter itself, according to Sam Oeun.

“The council failed to protect the strength and rigidity of the Constitution,” Oeun said.

Since then, the body has made a number of controversial decisions. In 2014, the council green-lit a trio of contested “judicial reform” laws that experts said significantly tightened the executive branch’s control over the courts.

A year later, the council approved a hotly debated NGO law granting ministries broad powers to dissolve organisations for certain vaguely defined violations, including not remaining politically “neutral”.

In March, the council also ruled in favour of widely criticised amendments to the Law on Political Parties, giving the government sweeping powers to suspend or dissolve political parties over criminal convictions of a party leader. The changes forced former opposition leader Sam Rainsy – who had a slew of politically tinged convictions to his name – to leave the party.

The council also approved a second round of changes to the same law forbidding parties from using the materials and likeness of convicted criminals. CPP officials acknowledged at the time that the changes were expressly targeted at further sidelining Rainsy. Now, with current opposition leader Kem Sokha in detention awaiting trial on “treason” charges, many have speculated the law could be used to dissolve the CNRP ahead of the 2018 election.

However, in a speech at yesterday’s celebration, CPP lawmaker Pen Panha defended many of the controversial laws and said the council helped Cambodia move towards “the implementation of liberal, multiparty democracy” as stated in the Constitution’s preamble.

Chhorn, the spokesman, also defended the council as an “independent and neutral” institution. Asked whether the arrest of Kem Sokha violated his constitutionally protected parliamentary immunity, he said that the council cannot interpret the Constitution until it received an official request to do so.

Piseth Duch, of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, praised some of the council’s decisions on election complaints and international treaties, but said civil society organisations remain “widely disturbed” by the Law on Political Parties and judicial reform laws.

“The council could be improved by making some changes to the mandate of the council to increase its activeness and to allow it to act on its own initiative to defend the Constitution,” he said.

Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson said in an email that the council had “failed miserably” in its duty to protect Cambodians over the past 24 years. Constitutional protections for Cambodians “exist on paper but not ineveryday lives of Cambodians”, he said.

But amid the celebrations for the document in which Cambodians’ rights are enshrined, some officials took the opportunity to remind the public where their rights end.

Prum Sokha, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Interior who also holds a senior position within the CPP itself, said in a speech that his ministry would “take legal action to stop incitement of violence through protesting,demonstrations and illegal riots”.

Then, parroting language increasingly directed at the opposition, he added the government was prepared “to prevent subversion and attempts to overthrow the royal government via colour revolution”.

MOST VIEWED

  • With herd immunity likely in 2022, is Cambodia ready to reopen for tourism?

    The government aims to inoculate 80 per cent of the target population by June next year, giving it a head start among regional peers to reboot the sector but first, it has to do a few things to up its game A sign on a glass

  • US wants 'full access' to Ream Naval Base

    On June 11, the US embassy's Defense Attaché Colonel Marcus M Ferrara visited Ream Nava Base in coordination with Cambodian officials following the recent approval of Prime minister Hun Sen to allay the concerns on Chinese military presence at the base as raised by US Deputy

  • US embassy guard gets Covid despite two doses of Pfizer jab

    The Covid-19 tracking commission on June 4 said a security guard at the US embassy in Phnom Penh had contracted the novel coronavirus, despite having received a second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot two weeks ago. Embassy spokesperson Chad Roedemeier confirmed the SARS-CoV-2 infection to The

  • Jab drive heading to 5 provinces

    The government is set to vaccinate more than 1.2 million people in five provinces after finishing with Phnom Penh and neighbouring Kandal in an ongoing campaign administered by the ministries of Health and National Defence. The five provinces are Preah Sihanouk, Kampong Speu, Takeo, Kampong Cham

  • New immigration bill targets illegal foreigners in Kingdom

    General Department of Immigration (GDI) officials are discussing revisions to the new draft law on immigration to prevent foreigners from entering Cambodia illegally and to supervise those living in the Kingdom more effectively. The revisions draw wide support among civil society organisations. GDI director-general Kirth

  • Kingdom set to be a gold producer

    Cambodia will soon join the roster of gold producing countries after the government announced the commencement of commercial gold mining operations in the Okvau area in southwestern Mondulkiri province's Keo Seima district from June 21. Prime Minister Hun Sen on June 10 announced that after 14 years of