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A big year with so little

A man walks past the Anti-Corruption Unit office in Phnom Penh.
A man walks past the Anti-Corruption Unit office in Phnom Penh. Pha Lina

A big year with so little

Cambodia ranked 150th out of 168 countries assessed for the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) in 2015. Out of a possible score of 100, Cambodia took home 21 in both 2015 and 2014, maintaining the status of a highly corrupt country. Cambodian people had long perceived that the scoring reflected a dire need to implement many areas of reform in the public sector. In response to people’s perceptions on the fight against corruption, Transparency International Cambodia has recommended the creation of an independent judiciary, enactments of the Access to Information Law and the Whistleblower Protection Law, on top of amendments of a few articles of the current Anti-Corruption Law. At the core of these areas of reform, it has been generally acknowledged that nepotism and conflict of interest must be urgently addressed.

It is neither novel nor profound to say that becoming a rule of law country is in Cambodian people’s best interests. Conceptually speaking, rule of law requires three fundamental elements at least. First, it means that all governmental acts must be in accordance with the prescribed laws. No law, no action. Any regulations or decisions not directly permitted or implied by law are illegal. Secondly, because laws can be ill-intended or purely politically motivated, in order to safeguard people’s freedoms, the use of legal authority must not be abusive. In other words, there must be an effective checking mechanism on the use of any discretionary power of the government. The third element derived by the rule of law concept, therefore, is that the branch that settles disputes between government and citizens – the judiciary – must be a politically and technically independent branch.

The people may ask then: Where does Cambodia stand with regard to the rule of law criterions? On the first element, it is fair to say that Cambodia has adopted a large amount of laws and regulations, especially the latter. Given the high volume of regulations (signed by the head of the government and ministers), some commentators might even wonder whether it would be more fitting to call Cambodia a rule of regulations, rather than rule of law.

Regardless of individual theories, it is clear that Cambodia still lacks two crucial legislations identified above: Access to Information Law and Whistleblowers Protection Law. The natural impact of these two laws is that government as a whole would be opened up to public scrutiny with its commitment to transparency being evaluated by ordinary citizens, the users of the public services. On the other hand, while there have been plausible efforts in drafting the two legislations, if they neither get adopted quickly nor live up to internationally acceptable standards, their usefulness will be questionable at best.

On the second element, news coverage remains filled with stories of abuses of power almost on a daily basis. To the best of my knowledge, there has not been a court decision that has invalidated any governmental regulation or decision on the basis of the abuse of discretionary power. In France, the UK or the US, people celebrate the work of their courts. Judges in those countries are actually the best guarantors of individual freedoms against governmental infringements on their freedoms. This inability to invalidate unlawful or abusive use of power owes to the fact that Cambodian people have perceived the judiciary in Cambodia to be not independent. This could explain one reason why people have not wanted to bring a lawsuit against the administration. Actually, looking back, when the so-called three judicial laws were being enacted, both domestic and international jurists pointed to many defects in those laws that would work against the independence of the judiciary. Sadly, so far no amendments have been made to help improve judicial independence.

The CPI 2015 showed that a strong and effective mechanism to fight corruption was not yet in place. Key areas that needed reforming the most judicial independence, efficient law enforcement, better service delivery – also had limited results. Furthermore, in order to fight against systematic corruption, nepotism and conflict of interests shall have no place in the public administration.

Maintaining high economic growth is a good achievement to be proud of but unless corruption is tackled effectively, such economic growth does not actually benefit the people at large. Reforms are no easy task and things will take time. But time tends to fly pretty fast on the watches of those who have so long hoped for a more transparent and less corrupt country.

Preap Kol is the executive director of Transparency International Cambodia.

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