The president of the Bar Association of Cambodia has hit back at the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), which called for assurances that the Bar Association’s newly launched Code of Ethics, which was unveiled on Friday, would allow Cambodian lawyers to freely express themselves without retribution.
Speaking in Phnom Penh at the launch of the new ethics code, which replaces the 1995 version, the association’s president, Bun Honn, referred to a statement released Friday morning by the ICJ’s Bangkok-based international legal adviser for Southeast Asia, Emerlynne Gil.
“The Cambodian Bar Association must clarify that under Article 17, lawyers, like all others, can address important legal and policy issues publicly and openly,” Ms. Gil said in the statement.
“The language of the new Article 17 is an improvement over the old Code, but it is ambiguous and raises fears that lawyers will not be able to exercise their right to express their opinions freely,” she said.
Article 17 of the Code of Ethics for Cambodian lawyers states: “All interventions made publicly or through public media by lawyers in the capacity as lawyers may be permitted only within the framework of strict compliance with the duties of the legal profession. Such interventions require diligence.”
The language of Article 17 would appear to be far less restrictive than the previous code’s Article 15, which said that lawyers needed to “consult” the Bar president prior to speaking with the media.
In his speech at the launch of the code, however, Mr. Honn took aim at the ICJ and questioned its motives.
“This NGO is headquartered in Thailand, and I don’t know if they understand how lawyers work in Cambodia,” Mr. Honn told the audience, which included 59 trainee lawyers.
“They never cooperate and only give destructive criticism. This is not at all in line with international standards, and we need to be cautious so that we are not gullible to the motives of that organization,” he said.
Mr. Honn explained that the new code aims to maintain a level of professionalism, not to stifle lawyers.
“Some lawyers used the media to criticize each other,” he said, without naming names. “We need to keep our balance in this profession, which is not like others. We should ask the ICJ which country does not mention this?
“If we put our profession in anarchy, people will have no confidence in lawyers. It’s a sensitive point that has been interrupted by other professions. Lawyers are independent and free and they have complete independence and freedom as long as they practice in line with the law and Code of Conduct,” he said.
“I hope this will eliminate all the doubt expressed so far.”
The new code was drawn up with the assistance of the U.N.’s Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Cambodia, and contains two articles that were not in the old version that pay particular attention to the roles and rights of lawyers.
Article 4 states that lawyers “have the mission to establish the rule of law, strengthen social justice, and protect human rights,” while Article 5 says that “lawyers shall have freedom and independence in the practice of their profession.”
The old Article 15 was at the epicenter of a storm that began to brew in January, when the Bar Association sent a letter to its members, informing them that legal action would be taken against them if their communication with the media brought the legal body into disrepute.
The Ministry of Information reiterated the threat a few days later, telling radio and TV journalists to seek approval before speaking to Bar Association members. The fallout from the announcements reverberated among human rights groups, which said that the legal body was trying to stifle free speech.
James Heenan, acting country representative of the OHCHR, said it had been an “important and brave decision of the [Bar] council in 2010 to revise all texts on the legal profession.”
“The Code clearly says that lawyers shall have freedom and independence—this is a fundamental principle.
“Lawyers need to be able to do their job without influence and direction from other parties,” Mr. Heenan said.
“The previous Code caused a number of concerns. We are pleased to see that the new code means lawyers are free to speak to the media or anyone for that matter without having to inform or consult the Bar Association president. This doesn’t mean lawyers can say whatever they want without consequences…the law is a profession, not a job.”