While last week’s Consultative Group meeting featured little of the lecturing by donors that has occurred at previous meetings, the central test of the government’s pledged willingness to reform will be the passing of an international standard anti-corruption law by June, participants said.
The meeting, which took place on Thursday and Friday, yielded renewed promises of reform from government officials, and an across-the-board increase in pledges by donors from $504 million in December 2004 to $601 million.
While full details of the pledges were not available as of Sunday, it was clear that the increase comes both from multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the UN and from individual countries.
Among those who pledged, the Asian Development Bank pledged $88 million, up from $46 million; the UN, $58 million, up from $37 million; the World Bank, $53 million, up from $45 million; the US, $61 million, up from $44 million; and France, $39 million, up from $25 million. Japan’s pledge is expected to be around $115 million, as it was last time.
Ian Porter, the World Bank country director, said the bank’s increase was tied to reforms the government made during the past year.
Individual countries gave more both due to reforms and because increasing aid to the poor is a worldwide movement among the rich nations, he said.
Porter did not specify at the meeting which reforms he was referring to, but donors have recognized reforms in the government’s financial management and plans for decentralization.
US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli said after the meeting that donors are happy with recent positive moves by the government, such as the release of government critics.
“The last six to eight weeks cannot be ignored: The Prime Minister [Hun Sen] has taken some very dynamic and courageous steps,” Mussomeli said. “All the donors seem very happy with all things going on.”
“As long as the Cambodian government is doing things that clearly benefit the Cambodian people, then the United States will try to increase and enhance the relationship,” he added.
French Ambassador Yvon Roe D’Albert said France was also pleased with the government’s overall progress. “The French government has put no conditions to the government,” he added.
Passage of the anti-corruption law has been a donor benchmark since the 2002 CG meeting.
The latest draft was to be passed by the end of 2005, according to the 2004 CG meeting targets. At last week’s meeting, participants said it will be the focus of donor pressure this year.
“There is no point enacting a law that is not going to be useful to Cambodian people,” Mussomeli said.
The US called at the meeting for the draft law—which has been repeatedly revised since the early 1990s—to be amended to ensure that there is an independent anti-corruption body to advise on corruption investigations.
It also called for amendments to ensure that the body’s chief investigator can choose to pursue whatever investigations he wants and has unfettered access to asset declarations.
Leng Peng Long, secretary of state for the Ministry of National Assembly and Senate Relations and Inspection, who oversaw the drafting of the law, said he did not know whether it would be passed by June.
“We have tried to study several comments from donors,” he said, adding that the government believes that to comply with the Constitution, it should be up to court prosecutors to decide whether to prosecute someone for corruption.
Finance Minister Keat Chhon said Friday that there will be many more discussions between donors and the government about the law. In the meantime, he encouraged donors to get behind Hun Sen’s controversial “Iron Fist” campaign to reform the judiciary.
Sek Barisoth, anti-corruption coordinator for the NGO PACT Cambodia, said the Council of Jurists has raised specific recommendations about the law.
“On asset declaration, the Council of Jurists has said that many people will fear for their security if assets are declared. But we are not asking for public declarations. In the draft, only the council has access to the declarations and the secretary-general [of the anti-corruption body] can request to look at them,” he said.
Sek Barisoth said NGOs want the law to ensure immunity from defamation lawsuits to be extended to confidential whistleblowers.
He added that he was not optimistic about the law being passed quickly. “I don’t think it’s possible it will be passed by June,” he said.
While international rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International called for human rights to be discussed at the meeting, local NGO representatives said they were not upset by the fact that the topic was not explicitly raised.
“Human rights were discussed under the anti-corruption and good governance heading, but there was little discussion of anything but the anti-corruption law,” said Haidy Ear Dupuy, communications manager of faith-based NGO World Vision. “The statements were all agreed in advance and there was very little discussion.”
She said she believed that Hun Sen was serious this year in his commitments to reform, even though similar commitments were made at seven previous CG meetings.
“The prime minister said that no matter who wins the election, there will be reform,” she said. But she would have liked donors to ask the government to release information on concessions and corruption quarterly rather than “periodically,” as it states in the benchmarks, she added.
Sim Somuny, director of the healthcare NGO umbrella group Medicam, said his main concerns were about the health care budget.
“There is still concern about disbursements within ministries from the central to provincial level,” he said. “Now that there is no separate [benchmark on that], we hope that it will it still be looked at closely.”
Thun Saray, director of local rights group Adhoc, said he was not concerned that freedoms of expression, assembly and the media were not discussed at the meeting.
“Donors understand that Hun Sen recently released several human rights activists” and called for the decriminalization of defamation, Thun Saray said, adding that the anti-corruption law is now key.