The Consultative Group meeting between the government and donors is once again prominent in the minds of political observers, with the first CG meeting since December 2004 scheduled for March 2 and 3.
With many of the goals set at the CG meeting in 2004 still unmet, it initially appears that more ambitious goals for 2006 will not be set.
On Monday, the Council for the Development of Cambodia sent the latest agreed-upon version of the 2006 CG benchmarks to donors.
Donor representatives said privately that compared to 2004, a number of reform targets appear to have been watered down.
Despite the arrests of government critics in recent months, there is no benchmark target on human rights adherence, and a donor source said Tuesday that an earlier proposed human rights indicator was dropped from the 2006 goals.
“This version is the latest response from the government. The final indicators will come at the end of the CG meeting,” said one senior donor representative on condition of anonymity.
The representative pointed to the absence of a deadline to pass fundamental legislation, such as a new penal code and an anti-corruption law, as a weakness in the indicators for 2006.
In 2004, the government and donors agreed that the anti-corruption law would be drafted in accordance with UN standards and passed by the end of 2005.
In the meantime “within the existing criminal law, reported cases of corruption shall be brought before the courts for investigation,” the 2004 benchmarks stated.
Now the goal for the still-to-be-adopted anti-corruption law, with no mention of UN standards, is to be passed by the end of June. But, unlike the 2004 benchmark, there is no mention of prosecutions for corruption under existing law.
Instead, the government agrees in the indicators to “periodically disseminate information on reported cases of corruption.”
In 2004, the government and donors agreed to uphold a moratorium on logging and the granting of economic land concessions. The government did an about turn shortly after the meeting, and said they needed economic concessions.
There is no mention of the logging moratorium in the new targets. Instead, national forests are to be vaguely reclassified as being for “sustainable use.”
The donor representative said a target of prosecuting people for corruption needs to be included.
“I think the corruption point is substantially weaker,” he said.
However, the 2006 benchmarks contain strengths, said the representative: A law on local governance is called for by the end of March and the new five-year development plan, adopted in January, which locks most donors and governments into a set level of aid, will be monitored.
“I would not make the leap from some provisions [being] weaker to saying the entire set is watered down,” the representative said.
“I would say that the targets have been rationalized,” he added.
Chhieng Yanara, the Council for Development of Cambodia official coordinating the 2006 indicators, declined to speak to a reporter and did not reply to e-mailed questions, while Finance Minister Keat Chhon, the official in charge of the meeting, could not be contacted.
Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay said that judging from the indicators, donors at the meeting in March will be as unsuccessful in inspiring large-scale reform as their predecessors were.
“This document is just repeating the same things again and again. The anti-corruption law was originally a benchmark for June 2003 and it was submitted, but the law was so bad, donors told me, that they would rather have no law at all,” he said.
“There are no concrete results in these benchmarks. We have timelines and frameworks, medium-term plans,” he said. “This is to keep the flow of reports and workshops going, which is how these experts like to help Cambodia…. We need better experts over here.”
Chhith Sam Ath, executive director of NGO Forum, said NGOs would have wanted to see the 2004 indicators retained in the new document.
“Excluding these important indicators from the current set of [indicators] could signal a failure to deliver on agreed actions and would furthermore weaken the credibility of the dialogue between government and its partners,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Local NGOs view a 2004 freedom-of-information benchmark as crucial, he added.
“There has been limited disclosure on economic land concessions, but nothing has been disclosed regarding mining concessions, military development zones,” he wrote, adding that the new indicators are result of a change in donor strategy.
Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development, agreed.
“I think the donors have learned over the last 10 or 11 CG meetings that the government must have a sense of ownership of these problems, that they cannot continue just challenging the government. You can bring a horse to water but you cannot make him drink,” she said.
She also played down speculation that Hun Sen released critics from jail for fear of retribution at the meeting. “I think we have to give some credit and recognize the absorption capacity of a government that has been exposed to the [World Trade Organization], that has been exposed to international best practice. The cynical view is too extreme…. The prime minister has now decided to embrace freedom of expression,” she said.
One foreign diplomat said a soft-approach CG meeting reflects the ability of Hun Sen to woo the international community in recent weeks.
“I think they will be pleased with statements by the prime minister,” he said. He added that while no overt threats have been made, a reduction in aid levels by the World Bank since the last CG meeting has made an impression on the government.
“The first thing [Hun Sen] wants is to stop associations with other countries, like Burma. But the rewards [he] is playing for are increased donations and investment,” the diplomat said. “Foreign countries should make good on this by offering more donations and investment.”