Rural Cambodians faced with rubber plantations polluting their water or businessmen cutting down their forests could have a new path to justice as early as next year if implementation of the new Environment Code goes according to plan.
The code, which is up for a two-day public discussion that started on Thursday, would establish a panel of arbitrators selected by the Ministry of Environment, with the power to mediate environmental cases and issue binding legal decisions.
While the panel will not review criminal cases—such as logging rosewood or trafficking tiger parts —Cambodians will have the right to bring a wide range of environmental problems before it, said Matthew Baird, a lawyer with Vishnu Law Group, which helped draft the code.
Environmental restorations—demanding that an agribusiness reforest land it illegally cleared, for instance, or a mining company pay to clean a chemical spill—are unheard of in Cambodia, he said. “It’s never happened—unless it’s happened outside of court.”
The Environmental Code is a sweeping environmental law set to be finalized and delivered to the desk of Environment Minister Say Sam Al on December 25.
For many at the workshop, especially those from Cambodia’s more remote provinces, the new grievance mechanism offered hope, albeit uncertain.
“People are not happy with the work of the court,” said Ly Sam Oeun, a community organizer from Krolah village in Ratanakkiri province. “We indigenous people have demonstrated repeatedly over land cases. The courts have not done any work for us.”
Having seen previous laws passed but ultimately filled with empty promises, Mr. Sam Oeun was reserving judgment until it was actually implemented.
“They say things and then they don’t act in the way of the law,” he said.
It was a concern shared by the lawyers drafting the code.
“The strength of [the panel] depends on its implementation,” said Mia Chung, a consultant for Vishnu Group. “We’ve tried to make it as independent, as transparent, as useful to the Cambodian context as possible.”
Mr. Sam Oeun said that if the code was put in place, he would use it.
“If they make this law, I will take what I’ve learned and I will go to the communes and to the provinces. I will educate them about it, and about what their rights are,” he said. “And if it works? I’ll keep on.”