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Training Defenders of Human Rights

Training Defenders of Human Rights

Even as votes were being counted in Rattanakiri, UNTAC began the next phase of its

project to bring democracy to Cambodia. At the Department of Education building in

the provincial capital Ban Lung, UNTAC's Human Rights component began training public

defenders.

Cambodia is a country without an independent judiciary, without "home-grown"

lawyers. There is a Law School in Phnom Penh, but it has until this year only taught

at the high school level. It will not graduate any lawyers for three more years.

But democracy and the guarantee of human rights demand that there be those willing

to take the side of the private citizen in disputes involving the government. UNTAC's

Public Defenders Course hopes to fill this need in the interim period until lawyers

are available.

Ron Poulton at UNTAC I, the Human Rights component in Phnom Penh, says that there

have been defenders under the State of Cambodia government, but "they acted

more or less as an extension of the state apparatus, whose goal was conviction."

In many cases, the sole evidence was a confession extracted by torture, he said.

Patrick Hughes, Rattanakiri's Human Rights Officer, believes that there is a direct

relationship between the availability of public defenders and human rights. He said:

"For there to be the protection of human rights in Cambodia we must have public

defenders who know the law, who know what is allowed and what is not allowed.

Instructor Jerome de Vries emphasizes the point. Public defenders "force judges

to see the other party's side," he said.

De Vries, from Holland and Richard Thao, a Khmer-American, spent two weeks in Ban

Lung teaching the course.

Thirty-four students attended the course. Many came from the political parties competing

for votes in the election. Others are from non-governmental human rights organizations

like LICADHO.

Thao thinks that the course is a "great opportunity for the Cambodian people,

because the Cambodian people have never had the opportunity for defense against the

government. They have been arrested, thrown in jail, and sometimes tortured, all

without seeing a lawyer or judge."

De Vries says the course has two main aims. First, it will "make people of aware

of the existence of law: laws to protect the rights to life, personal security and

liberty." Second it will "give them the basic equipment to be a defense

lawyer in the future" to meet the "tremendous" need for defenders.

One main focus will be criminal law. A reason for this focus is the large back-log

of prisoners in Phnom Penh. UNTAC was successful in having many political prisoners

released early in its tenure. But there are a large number of prisoners still in

jail who have been categorized as criminals. These prisoners will need defenders

as the back-log is cleared.

The defender's course "creates the possibility for Cambodians without a law

degree to act as a defender." The course will create a core group of defenders

who can "bridge the gap between the current lack of defenders and the time when

they start graduating from law school," he said.

One might ask: but who will defend the defenders? In a country with out a tradition

of an independent judiciary, what institutional structures will aid these very brave

young men and women?

It is likely that the public defenders will come under pressure from "existing

government structures" as they begin to exercise their skills. UNTAC will provide

them some support by providing funding for some of the more successful students.

This will likely be accomplished through an international NGO, though the long run

aim is to have a completely Khmer institution, one that may in the even longer run

become a bar association.

The election by itself will not bring democracy to Cambodia. It is essential but

by itself not sufficient-as events make us increasingly aware. Democratic values

must be institutionalized, one of the most important being that each citizen has

the right to protection from the arbitrary exercise of power by the government. The

defender's course is one small step in the direction of institutionalizing protections

for this right.

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