Cambodia’s candidate for the International Criminal Court has failed in an election bid to serve as a judge on the international body responsible for trying those charged with war crimes and genocide, furthering Cambodia’s reputation as a country with a weak judiciary, critics said.
Cambodia nominated Heng Vong Bunchhat, 59, a senior adviser to the government and a former deputy minister of justice. However, Heng Vong Bunchhat failed to secure the necessary votes for a seat on the court.
“If [Heng Vong Bunchhat] was elected, it would have been a mockery of justice,” said Son Soubert, a member of the Constitutional Council. “It would be a mockery not because Heng Vong Bunchhat is not qualified, but because we have no credibility in the eyes of the international community.”
The 43 signatories to the International Criminal Court held 21 separate, secret votes last week in New York to elect 18 judges to serve on the court, according to a UN news release.
The winners included judges from France, Bolivia, Canada and Ghana.
Ten women were among the judges elected.
“The judges…are key to shaping the court and making it an independent, fair and effective institution to deal with crimes of the most grievous nature committed by individuals,” according to the UN statement.
Heng Vong Bunchhat could not be reached for comment on Sunday.
Since the court was seeking a balanced representation of judges and Cambodia was one of only six Asian countries to field candidates, observers had expected Heng Vong Bunchhat to be easily elected.
However, the signatories instead chose Asian judges from Korea, Samoa and Cyprus, leaving Cambodia out of the first international body to try war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.
Son Soubert was quick to say that Cambodia has yet to prove to the world that it is serious about reforming its troubled and much-criticized court system.
“[Heng Vong Bunchhat] and the other judges were up against the world’s best judges,” said Canadian Ambassador Stephanie Beck on Sunday. “I think it’s clear that the Cambodian legal and judicial system is still young, and it doesn’t have the experience as other countries.”
But French Ambassador Andre-Jean Libourel said Cambodia’s current judicial system had little to do with Heng Vong Bunchhat not being elected to the court.
“Cambodia was one of the few Asian countries to support and sign the ICC—that in itself was a positive step,” Libourel said. “But because it is a small country, they did not get elected. I don’t think it is a sanction against Cambodia.”
Cambodia’s judiciary has suffered repeated criticism, and was struck another blow during January’s mid-year Consultative Group donor meeting.
According to a report by the UN human rights office submitted to the CG meeting, Cambodia failed to meet October deadlines on four reform benchmarks: A legal and judicial reform strategy, restructuring the Supreme Council of Magistracy, passing a law on the Statutes of Magistrates and bringing reported cases of corruption to justice.
The country’s top judicial branch, the Supreme Council of Magistracy, was condemned by the UN report for having “failed to fulfill its tasks, with corruption being the main problem as well as a lack of independence and politicization.”
Under this framework, it comes as no surprise that the Cambodian judge was not elected, Son Soubert said.
“I wish the reputation of my country was better, but Cambodia still has to prove that it is respectful of the law and serious about reform,” he said.
The following countries had judges elected to the International Criminal Court: Costa Rica, Bolivia, Ireland, Mail, the UK, Trinidad and Tabago, France, Germany, Canada, Finland, Ghana, Cyprus, South Africa, Italy, Samoa, Republic of Korea, Brazil and Latvia. The judges will be sworn in on March 11, according to the UN Web site.