Donor Meeting Urged To Tackle Graft, Land Issues

Cambodia’s international aid donors were tight-lipped yesterday about what issues they will raise during next week’s semiannual meeting with the government, but civil society representatives said that anti-corruption measures and land disputes should be at the top of the donors’ agenda.

Tuesday’s meeting of the Gov­ernment-Donor Coordination Committee will bring together development partners and members of the government to discuss international aid and Cambodia’s progress in meeting goals on topics ranging from health to trade.

At the last GDCC meeting in April, the donors issued a joint statement appealing to the government to speed up the passage of a long-promised anti-corruption law, and criticized “inconsistent and slow” progress in developing land policy.

Representatives of the US, French and Australian embassies all declined to comment yesterday on what issues the donors would raise at next week’s meeting. The German Embassy and the office of the European Commission both referred questions to the World Bank, but the bank’s spokesman, Bou Saroeun, said he was on leave and unable to comment.

Political observer Chea Vannath said that she expects anti-corruption legislation to be at issue once again next week, but added that she isn’t hold­ing out much hope for progress.

“I don’t know the criteria of the do­nors, because they started talking about that [anti-corruption law] more than 10 years ago,” Ms Van­nath said. “The government pro­mised to pass the anti-corruption law, but it never happened…. While [the donors] mention many times about the anti-corruption law, their actions reflect differently.”

Beyond the usual suspects of good governance and respect for human rights, Ms Vannath said that she expects the donors to add some new items to the agenda.

“I’m sure that they might tackle the new global agenda of climate change and food security,” she said. “I think Cambodia already is hit by those two global issues.”

Naly Pilorge, director of human rights group Licadho, said yesterday that the donor meeting could be a chance for development partners to hold the government to account, particularly on the issues of land disputes and independence of the courts. “We believe there’s been a few promises being made by the government in terms of changes to the judiciary and violations against human rights. I really hope that the international community will stress that these can’t just be promises,” Ms Pilorge said.

In the five months since the last donor meeting, corruption in the public sphere has proved a bone of contention between the government and donors. At an anti-corruption rally in May, US Ambassador Carol Rodley made a speech estimating that Cam­bodia loses $500 million in public money every year to corruption, drawing harsh reaction from the government.

US Embassy spokesman John Johnson declined to comment yesterday on the government’s pro­gress in addressing corruption since April. However, he did say that the US has increased its bilateral aid to Cambodia since last year, committing $61.8 million in 2009 compared to $57.5 million in 2008.

Anti-corruption legislation first reached the National Assembly in 1994, but no law has ever been passed. In recent years, members of the government have insisted that Cambodia must have a new penal code before anti-graft laws can be enforced.

Since the last GDCC meeting, a draft penal code has been approved by the Council of Ministers, and is now waiting for the endorsement of the National Assembly.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said yesterday that a draft of the anti-corruption law is at the Council of Ministers and will be discussed at an upcoming plenary session. He added that while he did not know when that session would be held, it would be “very soon. It’s a priority-a top priority.”

Land rights—another major issue of concern at the last GDCC meeting—have also remained in the public eye since April. The evictions of Phnom Penh’s Group 78 and the HIV/AIDS community at Borei Keila were both widely condemned by the international community and human rights groups.

In July, development partners including the UN and the World Bank issued a statement calling for the government to end forced evictions, which were described as a “major problem,” especially in Cambodia’s urban centers.

Also among the signatories to that statement were major donors such as the US and Australia, while notable absences included France, Japan and Canada.

In the meantime, the Cambodian government this month abruptly ended a World Bank-funded land-titling program, which was responsible for issuing more than 1 million land deeds since 2002.

Government spokesman and Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith said yesterday that the government would continue to issue land titles and address land disputes without the assistance of the World Bank.

“We are working on our projects,” he said by telephone. “We never stopped. We stopped working with the World Bank, but we never stopped working on this issue.”

Chhith Sam Ath, director of the NGO Forum on Cambodia, said yesterday that he will be participating in next week’s donor meeting, and will call for greater civil society participation in the creation of policies relating to land management.

“We would like to get more engaged and see more consultation on the legal framework,” he said.

“In particular, on housing rights policy and the appropriation law,” he added, referring to a new law that will regulate government expropriation of land.

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