For Cambodia’s ethnic minority hill tribes, development and the resettlement of the population mean more than living next to neighbors with different tongues and customs. Increasingly, this means yielding to a legal system that often clashed with the unwritten laws they have long used to settle their disputes.
The UN Development Program hopes a new series of handbooks will help to turn that trend around.
Some three years in the making, the handbooks detail the rules that have traditionally governed the resolution of most disputes among the Brao, Jarai, Kreung, Banon and Tampuon peoples. Developed by the UNDP in partnership with the ministries of Justice and Interior and Legal Aid of Cambodia, the books had their official launch on Friday.
“The purpose…was to try to [put] the traditional practices of the indigenous people in writing…so that we can use those as tools to advocate the government to officially recognize the rules and the mechanisms of the indigenous people in conflict resolution,” said Yin Sopheap, regional legal specialist for UNDP.
Ultimately, UNDP hopes the government will codify some of those practices into law.
“That’s our goal,” said Mr Sopheap, who conducted most of the field research for the handbooks, “to approach them to accept it, and then to make it [part of the law].”
However, at first, UNDP simply hopes to encourage Cambodia’s courts to take traditional practices into consideration where the law leaves room for interpretation.
No set of laws can account for every case a judge will ever face, said Dorine van der Keur, international coordinator for UNDP’s Access to Justice Project. And in a country like Cambodia where legal precedents are not published, she said, those “statutory gaps” can grow especially wide.
Theoretically, that should give judges ample opportunity to make room for traditional practices in their decisions. But much more often than not, Mr Sopheap said, they take that opportunity to push such rules aside.
“The judges’ decisions are not based on precedent or theory, they are based on how they understand,” said Mr Sopheap, “so they can make the words mean something else.”
By documenting the traditional practices of Cambodia’s ethnic minorities—and, just as important, making the country’s judges, lawyers and lawmakers aware of them—the UNDP hopes to help those minorities reclaim some of that “room for interpretation.”
But that’s easier said than done, conceded Mr Sopheap: “Whether the government will give the room, we are not quite sure yet.”
It was just last month that an independent UN panel concluded that Cambodia appeared incapable of legally protecting its ethnic minorities from racial discrimination, a charge the government denied.
And with the UNDP’s Access to Justice Project coming to an end this month, project officers are having a hard time finding a development partner or government agency to carry on the work.
Phov Samphy, director-general of research and judicial development at the Justice Ministry, a government collaborator on the project, declined to comment yesterday, saying he was out of the office.