CAMBODIA’S court system continues to be hobbled by political interference, corruption and a lack of resources, according to the United Nation’s human rights envoy to Cambodia.
In a report released publicly last Thursday, Surya Subedi, the UN’s special rapporteur for human rights, recommended sweeping changes to a court system that he said fails to provide justice to the poor and vulnerable.
“Although the Constitution of Cambodia provides for the separation of powers between the three main organs of the State, in practice the distinction between these organs is blurred and the executive branch dominates the judiciary,” he wrote.
In his candid survey of the country’s courts, Subedi recognised the progress that had been made in passing key legal reforms, but said judicial proceedings continued to be “used by the rich and powerful in many cases to dispossess, harass and intimidate the poor” and those representing them.
The problem has been compounded by a lack of legislation to strictly define the roles and responsibilities of judges and allow them to operate impartially. He noted that corruption seemed to be “widespread at all levels in the judiciary”.
The report, which is based on Subedi’s mission to the Kingdom in June, highlighted the recent cases against Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Mu Sochua and Khmer Machas Srok newspaper publisher Hang Chakra as examples of political interference in the courts. He also cited the difficulty of the poor in settling land disputes through the courts, with many villagers bypassing the process altogether by making personal appeals to powerful officials.
Subedi closed the report with a series of recommendations, including new laws banning political party members from being appointed as judges and the decriminalisation of defamation.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said he agreed with the report’s general conclusions, and that steps needed to be taken to secure the courts’ independence.
“In the future, if we do nothing maybe it will get worse, and the space will be very narrow,” he said. But he added that reforms would require more commitment from foreign donors, who he said have recently scaled back support for legal reforms.
Government officials dismissed the report’s conclusions, saying it did not place enough weight on the country’s achievements.
“Now we are taking care to strengthen the system and strengthen the law,” said Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers. “[Subedi] doesn’t know what’s going on in Cambodia.”
He pointed to reforms enacted since the civil war ended in 1998, including the successes of the Khmer Rouge tribunal and the passage this year of the Law on Anticorruption, which he said would be used to quash corruption in the courts.
Om Yentieng, chairman of the government-run Committee of Human Rights, could not be reached yesterday. Subedi is to present his report to the UN Human Rights Council next week.