In a move many say will hurt judicial reform in Cambodia, the UN human rights office is “modifying” its judicial mentor program and most likely will not continue to keep international observers in the country’s troubled courts, UN officials said this week.
Although the UN is still in the process of reshaping its judicial mentor program and has not committed to any changes yet, officials close to the situation said all the international court observers had either left the country or have moved from their positions as court advisers.
“The judicial mentor project is currently being developed into a new program—the precise shape still has yet to be decided,” said Francesca Marotta, spokeswoman for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. She said the new program will not be fully completed until later this year, possibly in September, October or November.
“The judicial mentor program is a large part of the assistance [the UN provides] to the courts, and is a big component for judicial reform,” Marotta said Tuesday. “But you always look at what works and what works less, and how to improve the project.”
The UN judicial mentor program has been in place since 1995. The international judicial mentors—legal experts who were once located in various courts throughout the country—would observe and advise the courts. One UN official, who declined to be named, said the judicial mentor at the Supreme Court would often hold weekly sessions with judges and prosecutors to discuss correct legal procedures.
Some officials at the UN have expressed dismay that the project is changing.
“The very idea of being a mentor [at] the courts is that the international mentor can work with court officials to advise them of legal procedures and human rights, and to bring them up to international standards,” said one UN official earlier this week who declined to be identified. “If they do not have their presence in the courts, the courts will not be effective.”
Pulling out the judicial mentors from the courts is the biggest concern of some UN officials. Although Marotta said the UN will temporarily keep Cambodian legal assistants in some of the courts until fall, at least one UN official said the legal assistants often do not have law degrees and cannot advise or monitor the courts as effectively as the international observers.
According to Marotta, the UN kept an average of six international observers in various courts in Cambodia. However, since the beginning of the year, all the judicial mentors have been pulled out of their provincial or Phnom Penh posts and have either left the country, left the UN or have been moved to another department of the UN.
The concerns over the judicial mentor program come at an especially sensitive time for Cambodia’s judiciary. At last week’s donor meeting, many donor countries expressed grave concerns over the lack of progress in judicial reforms.
Citing corruption, ineffectiveness and executive interference, critics have accused the government and the judicial system of not upholding due process, violating human rights and of lacking credibility.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court Judge Kim Sophoan praised the judicial mentor program on Wednesday. He said judges often consulted the international judicial mentors on “strange cases” and individuals would often bring up complaints to the UN judicial mentors at the courts, which would prompt the courts and the UN to discuss the cases.
“The program is good, and we want it to continue,” Kim Sophoan said.