Senior Cambodian officials have deplored a report by the World Justice Project (WJP), which ranked Cambodia as the lowest in East Asia and the Pacific on respect for the rule of law.

Cambodia’s overall score in the WJP’s Rule of Law Index for 2022 was 0.31, down from 0.32 in 2021, placing it the lowest in East Asia and the Pacific region and 139th out of 140 countries worldwide, ahead of Venezuela. Scores range from 0 to 1, with 1 indicating the strongest adherence to the rule of law.

WJP data from 140 countries and jurisdictions shows that adherence to the rule of law fell in 61 per cent of countries this year.

Chin Malin, the Ministry of Justice’s secretary of state and spokesman, was highly sceptical of the October 26 report, saying its evaluation was questionable and likely to be politically motivated as Cambodia prepares for the 2023 general election.

“The scepticism comes from not knowing how the research is done, the way they conducted surveys, or who they spoke to. We don’t know any details of their methodology,” he said.

Malin said what is hard to accept about the report is that some countries – which are either at war or ruled by juntas, authoritarian and communist regimes, or a single political party – were somehow ranked above Cambodia.

“We have requested them to explain their methods, but they have not shared their data or the way they collected and evaluated it.

“Therefore, this report is hard to believe, difficult to accept and obviously very different from the reality of the situation in Cambodia. It is no different from the previous reports, which were political in nature,” he said.

Cambodian Institute for Democracy president Pa Chanroeun said that as a democracy activist and social researcher, he was not surprised by the WJP’s ranking of Cambodia.

“In my experience, as well as the studies of a number of other organisations, I have found complicated issues in the judiciary as well as the rule of law in our society. There are examples of unfairness in every corner of the legal system, from small cases to large ones – like that of Kem Sokha,” he said, referring to former president of the now-defunct Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

Chanroeun said the rule of law is the foundation that ensures the sustainability of both peace and development in society.

If the rule of law is weak, it affects the development of a country, as well as its dignity. It also contributes to a lack of trust among investors, meaning the country could miss out on ideal opportunities for economic growth, he added.

“Therefore, the government must show both willingness and commitment to restoring the rule of law and reforming the judiciary in Cambodia. This will ensure the continuity of peace and development in the Kingdom,” he said.

An October 26 press release by the WJP noted that 4.4 billion people live in countries where the rule of law has declined over the past year.

“We are emerging from the pandemic, but the global rule of law recession continues,” said WJP executive director Elizabeth Andersen.

“At its heart, the rule of law is about fairness – that is, accountability, equal rights, and justice for all. A less fair world is bound to be a more volatile one,” she added.

According to the WJP, the top-ranked country in its 2022 index is Denmark, followed by Norway, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands.

The country with the lowest score was Venezuela, followed by Cambodia, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Haiti.

Phay Siphan, chairman of the Government Spokesperson Unit, took issue with the report. He said Cambodia has built a democracy based on the will of the people, and for a democracy to function, laws must be established.

Siphan explained that Cambodia recently emerged from a civil war, during which many laws and institutions had been eradicated. Consequently, the Kingdom had had to draft many new laws and mechanisms, he said, noting that there are still some gaps in the laws which need to be filled, citing the recent amendments to the Constitution as an example.

“Law enforcement is very important. First, laws must be drawn up. Then people must understand them. Finally, they must be implemented. This implementation is defined as the rule of law,” he added.

Siphan said he did not know how the WJP had conducted their study, but stressed that the government has taken great steps to get people to value the law while the authorities are enforcing them according to the awareness of the public.

“Therefore, we cannot place any value in this report. They have given no indication that they understand Cambodian culture, or if they are aware that the Kingdom just emerged from a bloody civil war. The newest generation of Cambodians understand the value of the rule of law, and how important political stability is to preserving it,” he said.

Siphan added that the WJP clearly did not understand these important points if it was somehow able to determine that Cambodia does not respect the rule of law.

Kin Phea, director of the Royal Academy of Cambodia’s International Relations Institute, also took issue with the WJP’s report

“We do not know of what methods the WJP used, whom they interviewed, and whether those stakeholders provided sufficient information for a thorough assessment of all of the WJP’s indicators.

“This report is hard to accept. Cambodia could not be ranked just one above Venezuela. It is impossible,” he added.