Critics attacked the government’s newly formed Council of Legal and Judicial Reform on Sunday, saying it will lack independence and was created only to appease international aid donors.
The council, comprised of various ministers and co-chaired by Minister of Cabinet Sok An and Supreme Court President Dith Munty, will “initiate, promote, operate and implement to policies of judicial and legal reform” in the country, according to the royal decree signed by King Norodom Sihanouk on June 19—the day the Consultative Group donor meeting began.
But reform will be close to impossible with a council of politicians, critics say.
“The judiciary needs to have a separation of powers, and the members of the council—head ministers like Sok An—should not be in the picture,” said one high-ranking Cambodian Bar Association official on Sunday. “This is a council without any real interest to do reforms; it was formed just to show the international community that [the government] can do reforms.”
Cambodia’s judiciary has been heavily criticized because it is alleged to be influenced heavily by the government and Prime Minister Hun Sen. In a report issued last month, the human rights group Amnesty International charged that “interference by the executive branch of government has…undermined the [legal] system.”
The report cited one instance in which Hun Sen ordered suspected robbers, kidnappers and drug traffickers arrested despite the fact that some had been released, either on bail or after being acquitted by the courts. Some 70 people were re-arrested.
The bar association official said one of the main concerns with the reform council is that there is no accountability mechanism. Like the Supreme Council of Magistracy—the top judicial body, which operates almost exclusively behind closed doors—the reform council will essentially police itself, the official said.
An international legal adviser, who requested anonymity, agreed.
“This seems like an uneasy relationship,” the adviser said. “The government seems like it wants to give the impression that Sok An and the other high-ranking government officials will be more effective since they are powerful officials in the government. However…the council needs to be more independent.”
The adviser said the council would be more effective with members from academia, the bar association and other walks of civil society.
“I feel that this council, without representation from civil society or nongovernment people, will not be good,” the adviser said.
Representatives from the council disagree, saying that since the council will only be involved in policy-making, it cannot directly influence individual court cases.
“The council will not be involved in the day-to-day workings of the judiciary—only in the reform process,” said Sok Siphana, a secretary of state in the Ministry of Commerce and a member of the new judicial reform council. “The council will also meet with NGOs and other members of society and will take their input.”
Sok Siphana denied that the council was created solely to satisfy the donors’ ongoing concerns about Cambodia’s weak judiciary. He said the timing of the council’s approval—on the same day as the donors’ annual meeting ended—was “coincidental,” and that the government had been working to form the council for years.
Another council member, Sum Manit, a secretary of state for the Council of Ministers and head of its public administration reform department, said it is not uncommon for a council on reform to be composed of officials from top ministries.
“What about the other councils for reform, such as the Council for Administration Reform or the Council for Financial Reform or the Council for Demobilization?” Sum Manit asked. Those reform groups also have government officials as members, he said.
The other members of the council are Minister of Justice Neav Sithong; Ly Vouch Leang, a secretary of state in the Justice Ministry; Heng Vong Bunchhat, a government legal adviser; and Ouk Ra Bun, a secretary of state in the Ministry of Finance.
(Additional reporting by Nhem Chea Bunly)