Branding the Cambodian judiciary as corrupt, incompetent and lacking independence, UN human rights envoy Surya Subedi has used his latest Cambodian human rights report to call for an overhaul of the country’s legal system.
Mr Subedi, the special rapporteur on for human rights in Cambodia, is due to present his report on Cambodia’s judiciary at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva later this month after a fact-finding mission to Cambodia in June.
The report published at the weekend followed high-profile cases in the last year in which opposition leaders and journalists were swiftly convicted of criminal defamation and disinformation, things Mr Subedi has said should be abolished.
After his appointment last year, Mr Subedi tread softly at first, hoping to avoid a repeat of the acrimonious government relations of his predecessor Yash Ghai. However his early caution has progressively given way to candor.
The new report proposed sweeping changes to Cambodia’s legal system, including a prohibition on active political party membership for prosecutors, judges and members of the Supreme Council of Magistracy.
Government officials and members of the judiciary yesterday said they were unfamiliar with the report but dismissed its contents, saying that the UN envoy did not fully understand the situation in Cambodia.
While praising the Cambodian government’s adoption of new laws to improve human rights and its willingness to cooperate with the UN, Mr Subedi took aim directly at the judiciary’s perceived lack of independence, the “inadequate legal education” of judicial officers.
“On a number of occasions and especially in high-profile political cases, the judiciary seems to have allowed itself to be used or manipulated for political or purely private purposes,” the report said
“Although the Constitution of Cambodia provides for the separation of powers between the three main organs of the state, in practice the distinction between these organs is blurred,” the report said.
“[C]orruption seems to be widespread at all levels of the judiciary,” it continued.
Several high-profile cases were cited in the report as evidence of the judiciary’s failings, including opposition newspaper editor Hang Chakra’s 2009 disinformation conviction and SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua’s 2009 conviction for defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“Public figures should be prepared to tolerate more criticism and avoid using the courts to silence critics,” the report said.
Mr Subedi’s recommendations to improve the legal system started at the top of the judiciary, where he proposed amending current laws to allow all members of the Supreme Council of Magistracy, except the King, to be elected by their peers–preventing the executive from influencing appointments to the body.
By law, the majority of the supreme council comprises the justice minister and the prosecutors and presidents of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal.
The report called for members of the council to stop working as judges once elected and for the creation of a council secretariat, headed by a senior judge not appointed by the Justice Ministry.
Noting the large backlog of cases, Mr Subedi recommended that the Court of Appeal improve its capacity and suggested that more appeal courts be established in provinces outside of the capital.
Mr Subedi also called for a substantial increase in the justice budget??, increased training for judicial police, more human rights training for the judiciary, the decriminalization of disinformation and defamation laws, greater transparency in releasing court judgments, the creation of a freedom of information law, bar association reform and greater access to legal aid for the poor.
Supreme Court Prosecutor-General Chea Leang yesterday dismissed Mr Subedi’s calls for a more independent Supreme Council of Magistracy, where she is one of nine members.
“I do not know what kinds of independence he wants…. He wants [all members] to be elected, but how can we do that when we do not have a law” allowing it, she said. “He does not really understand Cambodian law.”
Om Yentieng, president of the government’s Human Rights Committee, declined to answer questions yesterday but Deputy President Mak Sambath said Mr Subedi’s report sounded like it had been prepared by NGOs.
“We have noticed that the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and civil society and the opposition are the same,” he said, claiming that Mr Subedi never consulted with the government before releasing his reports.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the government was working to strengthen the judicial system.
“We are strengthening the institutions and strengthening laws to support the institutions,” he said.
“We don’t want accusatory reports on every issue…. I don’t refuse Mr Subedi’s report but I believe it is for his own personal credibility and does not represent fact.”
Pung Chhiv Kek, president of human rights group Licadho, said yesterday that she had not yet read the report, but hoped the government would engage with the UN special rapporteur.
Mr Subedi and his predecessors “have no interest in saying something wrong, as they only want to help Cambodia using their expertise in the law,” she said.
Cambodian Legal Education Center Executive Director Yeng Virak could not comment on the specific findings of the report yesterday, as he had not yet read it, but he said he hoped the government would not dismiss its contents outright.
“I do not think denouncing the report would be helpful,” he said. “I wish that the government and the UN collaborate, as this is the only way to further develop the country.”