Cambodia's highest judicial body convened for its 27th plenary session yesterday, and while King Norodom Sihamoni, the council’s president and the nation’s constitutional guarantor of judicial independence, was in attendance, his influence on proceedings was seemingly negligible – much to the chagrin of some observers.
While the constitution enshrines the King’s position as head of the Supreme Council of the Magistracy (SCM), critics accuse the ruling Cambodian People’s Party of having undermined the monarch’s power to effect any change within the Kingdom’s much-maligned legal system.
Though some have held out hope Sihamoni would wield his constitutional power to push reform, observers say legislation adopted in 2014 to regulate the judiciary has codified the CPP-dominated executive’s hold over the SCM, legally sidelining the King to a mere formality.
Yesterday, the King opened proceedings before giving way to Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana, who directed proceedings through six agenda items, covering, among other things, the body’s recent activities and two promotions.
“[The King] spoke briefly,” SCM secretary-general Sam Prachea Manith said.
“At first, he welcomed the presence of the participating council members; he gave some blessings, then he opened the [SCM’s] 27th meeting . . . At the end, he wished his and her excellencies well and expressed appreciation for their work.”
But the wholly ceremonial nature of his function highlights a deep contradiction in a framework that purports to guarantee Cambodians access to an independent judiciary, observers say.
Because while Article 132 of the constitution cements the King’s responsibilities as the “guarantor of judicial independence”, laws governing the judiciary, passed in 2014, place the King firmly outside the decision-making functions of the body.
“The law on the Supreme Council of the Magistracy and the constitution are not consistent,” legal expert Sok Sam Oeun said yesterday.
“He has no power in making decisions . . . if he has no power to veto, he has no power . . . we should respect the spirit of the constitution . . . [it] says that he cannot rule, but rule means he cannot sit on the executive. To protect the independence of the judiciary, this does not mean ruling.”
Last year, the International Bar Association Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) released an assessment of Cambodia’s judiciary that alleged endemic corruption and politicisation it said pervades a system beholden to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
The authors expressed “serious concern” about the “excessive” role of Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana – a CPP central committee member – within the SCM, which “undermined” its independence from the executive branch. It also noted Sihamoni does not play an active role in political or judicial affairs.
“Indeed, during its visit to Cambodia, the IBAHRI delegation heard from several individuals that the King rarely attends meetings of the SCM and does not question its decisions,” they stated.
Yesterday, Prince Sisowath Thomico, a former aide to late King Father Norodom Sihanouk and member of the opposition, said it fell to the Constitutional Council to resolve the contradiction between the 2014 legislation and Kingdom’s charter regarding Sihamoni’s role.
“There is a conflict,” Thomico said. “If [the law] is not [consistent], it should be revamped.”
Asked to clarify the King’s role in the judiciary, Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin first noted that Sihamoni could not wield power, as the constitution says the King reigns but does not govern.
He then, however, maintained that the King’s position as head of the SCM gives him the power to guarantee the system’s independence, though he couldn’t explain how.
“He oversees the appointment and change of the judges, but he himself does not have the discretion to decide,” Malin said.
Asked to comment, Manith instead offered a warning to Post reporters.
“There is an article in the constitution that states that the King is untouchable; be careful or you will be punished,” he said.
Public calls by the Cambodia National Rescue Party to amend the three judicial laws, adopted amid an opposition boycott, have lessened of late amid months of political turmoil, including the imprisonment of several opposition members on charges widely believed politically motivated.
However, CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay said the party would soon submit its proposed changes to improve the legislation to the parliament.
“The King is supposed to have the power to ensure the justice of the people through the control of the judicial system, so it cannot be symbolic,” Chhay said.
“The law [on the SCM] manipulates [the constitution] to give the King less power over his responsibility to ensure the justice system provides justice for his subjects; this is one of the requirements of our amendment, to maintain the responsibility of His Majesty the King over this important field.”