Cambodia’s landmark juvenile justice law is still riddled with gaps that could see young people slip through the cracks, according to a new report, but it is also desperately needed in the wake of recent statistics pointing to a dramatic rise in children imprisoned this year.
Iman Mooroka, spokesperson for child rights organisation UNICEF, which helped draft the new law, said it was due to take effect early next year and was a matter of necessity. “The implementation of this new law is urgent, as there has been a noticeable rise in the number of children in detention, from 8 per 100,000 child population [in 2015] to 14 per 100,000 children [in 2016],” she said, citing government figures.
She added that Cambodia was to be congratulated on the law, which was signed by the King in July. “It focuses on diversion as the proper response to alleged youth criminality rather than punishment,” she said, adding that children tried and incarcerated for minor offences as adults “struggle to return to normal life”.
However, a report made public last week by World Vision found that although the new law would correct several glaring judicial errors, there were still significant gaps.
These included a shortage of pro-bono lawyers for children, the fact that minors are not always separated from adults in prisons, and that only a handful of prisons offer educational opportunities for incarcerated juveniles.
“Children who are convicted of a crime in Cambodia are almost exclusively sentenced to prison,” the report read.
The “weakest spot in the system”, the report added, was the “failure to establish an independent National Preventive Mechanism to monitor and prevent torture and ill-treatment in places of detention and the lack of protection for victims of abuse”, which means those abuses go largely unreported. While the law stipulates that minors in need of care and protection – where parents are absent – will be “admitted” to the department of social affairs, the report highlights that “[f]urther clarification is needed about services available for this category of minors to keep them from falling between the cracks”.
Additionally, the new law “only grants minors detained in the Youth Rehabilitation Center the right to be free from torture or cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or physical punishment”.
Minors detained elsewhere are not extended that protection under the current draft, and what’s more, that centre has yet to be established in Kandal province.
For some working with children in conflict with the law, the new law boils down to a matter of idealism versus reality.
Billy Gorter, of NGO This Life Cambodia, which runs vocational training for juvenile detainees, said while separate detention facilities and courts for children were ideal in theory, Cambodia currently lacked the means to pull it off. “A separate juvenile court with trained legal specialists … is always preferential, however, the reality is Cambodia is a long way off being structurally and administratively able to establish a child-oriented juvenile justice system that guarantees the rights of children,” he said.
For lawyer and International Bridges to Justice Cambodia country manager Ouk Vandeth, a key concern was the lack of birth certificates for defenders to prove young offenders’ ages, as children under 13 cannot be arrested and prosecuted – though under the new law, children will be given the benefit of the doubt if their age is disputed.