Everyone agrees that children are deserving of special care and protection by adults
- be that through individuals such as parents and teachers, or through governmental
and non-governmental organizations. Children are especially vulnerable, and so we
are particularly affected when we see children suffering as the victims of war, poverty,
However, when a child is accused of committing a crime, that sympathy and understanding
may evaporate. Yet children caught up in the legal system still need protection and
special treatment: first, they are often from the most disadvantaged backgrounds,
socially and economically; and second, the impact upon a child in the criminal justice
system may be extremely damaging.
Recognizing the special needs of children and their particular vulnerability, the
United Nations drew up the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The Cambodian
Government ratified the CRC on 14 November 1992, and is therefore bound by its provisions
and obliged to protect and uphold children's rights, by acting in the best interests
of the child.
The CRC sets out the safeguards which must be in place to protect children accused
of a criminal offense. It specifies that the arrest, detention or imprisonment of
a child shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate
period of time; that children in detention should be separated from adult detainees;
that children in custody have a right to contact with their families; and that all
children held in custody should be treated with humanity and respect, and in a manner
which takes account of the needs of a person of their age. The aim of the legal system
must be to facilitate the reintegration of the child into society.
The CRC also requires State parties to establish laws, procedures and institutions
specifically applicable to children accused or found guilty of criminal behavior,
and stipulates that a variety of dispositions - such as care, guidance and supervision
orders, counseling, probation, foster care, educational and vocational training programs,
and other alternatives to institutional care - shall be available.
How far has Cambodia honored those obligations in its treatment of juveniles in the
criminal justice system?
Last year, the Court Watch Project of the Center for Social Development (CSD) monitored
trials in six courts in Cambodia, including the cases of 137 juvenile defendants
(aged 13-18). CSD found that 87% of juvenile defendants were held in custody awaiting
trials, and that 82% of those in pre-trial detention had been held beyond the legal
time-limits (two months maximum for those under 18).
The conviction rate for juveniles was 95%. Of those convicted, 97% were given an
immediate custodial sentence, with just four children receiving a suspended sentence.
In a typical case, four minors were sentenced to five years' imprisonment for stealing
Right now, Cambodia is plainly not complying with the CRC. Pre-trial detention is
the rule rather than the exception, often beyond the prescribed time limits. There
are separate detention facilities for juveniles on remand, but once convicted, children
and adults serve their sentences together. This puts the child at risk and exposes
the child to more sophisticated and hardened criminals. Conditions are poor in most
jails, with overcrowding exacerbating deficient hygiene and sanitation. A prison
sentence means a hiatus, if not a complete halt, in education.
When concerns are voiced about the treatment of juvenile defendants, the issue of
"Bong Thom" gangs is often raised. Certainly, gangs of teenage boys involved
in street robberies and other violence may pose a real threat to law and order. However,
the appropriate response to such problems is for the government to work with youth
organizations to devise more effective strategies and legislation which complies
with the CRC, not to demonize all juvenile defendants and to violate children's rights.
One problem is that there is no alternative to custody. Many accused persons await
their trial in custody because there is no bail regime, under which stringent conditions
could be placed upon defendants to ensure their attendance at court, such as financial
bonds, regular reporting to the police, or a requirement of residence at a particular
In the case of a convicted juvenile, the court has no options other than an immediate
custodial sentence or a suspended prison term. The alternatives to custody required
under the CRC simply do not exist in Cambodia, and realistically will not materialize
until there is a solid infrastructure of social services and child care facilities
in place - which will not happen overnight.
In the meantime, more can and must be done to protect the vulnerable children who
are exposed to all manner of dangers and influences in Cambodia's jails.
Ideally, separate youth courts, with distinct powers and specially trained staff
and officials, should deal with juvenile cases, but for now, specific training for
judges and prosecutors to raise awareness of children's rights and their special
needs is essential, and achievable.
A bail system for juveniles must also be implemented to ensure that juveniles accused
of crimes reside, wherever possible, with their families or at an approved hostel
Finally, alternatives to custodial sentences must be explored as a matter of urgency.
The sophisticated multi-agency provision of services envisaged within the CRC may
not be attainable in Cambodia yet, but basic community penalties, such as performing
unpaid work in the community as a means of direct reparation for the crime, would
be relatively simple to implement and oversee.
Some positive efforts have been made by the government, notably the committee on
juvenile justice spearheaded by the President of Kandal Provincial Court, Khieu Sameth.
Improvements in the treatment of minors in the legal system are needed urgently,
and not simply because Cambodia must comply with the CRC. Children are the country's
future, and a legal system which treats children humanely, and encourages them to
turn away from crime and to reintegrate into society, is to everyone's benefit.
Zoe Nield, CSD Consultant
Ang Udom, CSD Legal Unit Head
The Voice of Justice column is a regular feature of the Phnom Penh Post. Both the
column and the logo are expressions of the Center for Social Development which bears
full responsibility for the opinions expressed. The CSD Voice of Justice logo depicts
a Cambodian figure pushing aside the black curtains of a repressive past, as s/he
yearns to enter a world of freedom of expression and democracy, represented by the
blue of the inner circle. The scales of justice above the figure show the supremacy
of law, and are in gold, which according to Cambodian mythology stands for strength,
rooted in the earth. The Constitution is placed in front of the figure to represent
the protection it affords. The logo is encircled in pale blue to symbolize peace,
whilst the two golden naga motifs, which appear on the CSD logo, identify the Voice
of Justice as a program of CSD.