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Rule of law the top issue for next administration

Rule of law the top issue for next administration

IN a few weeks the election will be history - the dust will settle and a government

will form. After a year of politics twisted by factionalism and violence, leaders

will have a chance to refocus on the task at hand: governing the nation.

The new government - certain to be led by the CPP - faces a host of problems that

have sat on the back burner since factional fighting began in July 1997: a slumping

economy, a bloated military and civil service, widespread human rights abuses, the

spread of AIDS and other diseases, an anaemic education system, rampant illegal logging

and deep-rooted corruption.

Prime minister-elect Hun Sen has already declared in a televised speech that boosting

the economy will be a top priority of the next government.

Observers welcomed the statement but remained skeptical. Although they agreed that

revitalizing the economy is a critical task, they point to a larger issue that they

describe as the linchpin for economic, social and political development: implementing

the rule of law.

"The problem here is that we have the rule of man," said Peter Schier of

the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. "The system here is deeply feudalist. What they

have to do is develop a democratic state under the rule of law and strengthen democratic

institutions."

Schier argued that doing business in Southeast Asia is already a gamble because of

the current economic downturn and that Cambodia's corrupt and violent reputation

will keep many investors away until serious reforms are implemented.

Legal experts say that the Assembly must immediately set to work on a new criminal

code and criminal procedure law to replace the current amalgam of State of Cambodia

and UNTAC-era legislation.

The CPP-dominated courts have been accused in the past of selecting laws in a random

fashion to suit its own politically motivated purposes.

"This would be an effort to condense everything into one law," one foreign

legal expert said of a new criminal code. "It's not about getting tougher on

crime... it's to clean up the mess."

CPP officials interviewed by the Post blamed past turmoil and lawlessness on the

unwieldy Funcinpec-CPP coalition of 1993-97 and agreed that fostering respect for

the law and human rights should be priorities of the next administration.

"You know well that the first mandate of the [1993-97 government] was national

reconciliation. Politics came first, legality came after," CPP spokesman Khieu

Kanharith said. "The state of law must be restored now that we have one prime

minister."

To pave the way for foreign investors, Kanharith said the CPP will push for budgetary

reforms, the enforcement of tax laws, economic studies on the impact of joining ASEAN

and a stronger stance against deforestation and environmental destruction.

CPP Council of Ministers official Svay Sitha said improving the human rights situation

through military and police education and the formation of a permanent government

human rights commission will also be addressed by the new administration.

"The first issue is the issue of human rights," he said. "We will

submit legislation for the new National Assembly to consider and approve."

Asked if there would be a crackdown on rogue elements in the police and military

to break the current cycle of impunity, Svay Sitha responded: "You cannot say

the new government will make more or less arrests. The government needs to make investigations

and gather evidence... and abide by the rule of law."

Rights workers fear that Svay Sitha, whose ad hoc human rights commission has done

little to investigate past political killings, is merely attempting to stymie the

efforts of established rights organizations, like the local office of the UN High

Commissioner on Human Rights, by creating a permanent government commission.

"It's commendable if they're going to change course and make human rights a

priority," one foreign rights official said. "But you won't find a single

human rights worker in this country that believes this commission will be independent."

Politician Sam Rainsy, who is expected to spend the next five years in opposition,

is equally cautious of the CPP's statements. Rainsy said there are "a list of

reforms to be implemented" by the government, but he doubted the CPP could disentangle

itself from Cambodia's web of corruption and foster politically neutral institutions.

Rainsy predicted that the CPP will refuse to loosen its grip on the police, military

and judiciary. Without independent security forces and an impartial court, he said,

human rights violations, impunity and corruption will continue unabated.

"We need a dismantling of the communist system," Rainsy said. "We

have to separate the state, which is supposed to serve the nation as a whole, and

the ruling party, which serves only its own purposes."

Rainsy, a former finance minister who was ejected from the last government when he

criticised corruption and pushed for economic reform, said that Hun Sen and the next

administration cannot concentrate on short-term solutions to long-term economic problems.

Attracting foreign investment may help fill government coffers, he said, but if the

additional income is not invested in the future of the nation - education, health

care and rural development - the country will never emerge from poverty.

The last government allocated an average of 47% of its budget to the ministries of

interior and defense, while 10% went to education, 6% to health and 3% to agricultural

development, according to the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

"I would like to reverse these proportions," Rainsy commented. "I

want to see 40% go to education and health and 10% to defense."

Both the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and Sam Rainsy separately warned that the overall

budget dramatically shrank with the withdrawal of international aid last year and

although many aid agencies will return to assist a new and legitimate government,

an overall decrease in foreign aid should be expected.

Rainsy said that the government must quickly learn how to do more with less and that

foreign donors must put pressure on Cambodia to develop and attain self-sufficiency.

"If you want to help this country you must push this country," he said.

"If I had some responsibility I would set a date of perhaps 10 years when Cambodia

would no longer need international assistance and explain my plan for reaching this

goal."

But it looks like Rainsy will not be given much, if any, responsibility in the new

government. Instead, he will be restricted to pushing for reform as leader of the

opposition Sam Rainsy Party in parliament.

"I have a group of MPs, over 13 MPs. I can do a lot in the National Assembly,"

he said.

"I can question the constitutionality of laws, I can propose amendments to laws,

and I can draft laws that will promote the nation's interests."

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