It has been a busy year for the National Assembly.
Acid crimes law, passed; law on prisons, passed; the new anti-drug law, passed. Then there were the more obscure laws, such as the convention with Laos and Vietnam on demarcation of their shared borders, the management of provincial and district state property, and, most recently, the approval of the biggest loan package in the country’s history, which also required a law.
Since 1993, nearly 400 laws have been adopted by the National Assembly, and 16 laws have been passed by Parliament so far this year—many of which were adopted in a matter of hours.
But as the number of laws grow, so too has the lack of public input in their drafting, legal experts say.
“Generally speaking, many bills are rushed through the Assembly without a proper debate,” the U.N.’s human rights envoy to Cambodia, Surya Subedi, said in a report in August.
“The tightly controlled system of adopting laws in the Assembly has meant in practice that amendments are rarely accepted at any stage of the process. This has highlighted the limited effectiveness of the Assembly in scrutinizing legislation prepared by the executive,” Mr. Subedi said.
Mr. Subedi’s findings also showed that the recently passed Penal Code, the anti-corruption law and the law on expropriation were adopted with almost no debate, no amendments and little or no consultation, and in very short time frames. All of this has led to a situation whereby “the role and work of the National Assembly as a proper debating chamber seems to be declining.”
“It’s a sneaky process,” said Yeng Virak, director of the Community Legal Education Center, an organization that strives to uphold good governance in the legal system. “The government does not want people to know about draft laws.”
“It is not good practice to keep the public from knowing what is inside laws. Drafting laws is public policy. It will affect people’s lives, and, therefore, the government should let the people comment,” he added.
Beyond high levels of secrecy and non-disclosure of legislation, others say that even when laws are made public, they are done so with very little time to spare before the National Assembly convenes to adopt them.
“The time given for the recommendations is so short. Some [laws] are passed within two hours and some in three,” lamented Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections. Frequently, said Mr. Panha, organizations with relevant and sometimes expert insight are kept out of the process of reviewing laws. At other times, recommendations are simply ignored.
“There is no change. Even the wording [in the draft law] is hardly changed,” he said. “The meeting is closed, and the process is done with the CPP itself. No one gets the information during the expert committee debate.”
Observers have also said that last year’s anti-corruption law and the penal code were adopted with breathtaking speed and without sufficient consultation.
Senior CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said the criticism of the government record of passing laws was unfounded, adding that legal recommendations from NGOs and opposition politicians are frequently baseless and do not conform with the law.
“Ninety percent of the points raised do not comply with the law. It is not on the topic—that’s why they are rejected,” Mr. Yeap said, but added that “reasonable” recommendations are always taken into account. “The opposition’s position is that even though the draft law is 100 percent correct, they will still oppose it.”
Despite complaints to the contrary, Mr. Yeap said that Cambodia is a prime example of a well-working parliamentary system.
“In all of Asia, there is no country that makes as many laws as Cambodian has. We pass, sometimes, 10, 20 or 30 laws per year. This is a good thing.”
Horng Rapo, chief of the medical and legal unit at the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity (CASC), said that while his organization had been invited by the government to help with the drafting of the long-awaited acid crimes law, few of their recommendations were ever listened to.
Because of that, Mr. Rapo said, the law is still wanting in many respects, particularly the CASC recommendations stipulating that both medical checks and legal fees for acid attack survivors should be free under the law.
“The law is only 50 percent complete,” he said.
Though the number of laws sent through the legislative process is impressive, analysts say that passing laws is only half the battle.
“The National Assembly should review the effect of the law after two to five years following its passage,” said Lao Mong Hay, an independent political analyst. He also said that even when laws come into force, Cambodia’s graft-ridden court system means that justice is often stymied.
“Since 1993, improvement in the law should go hand-in-hand with improvement in the courts,” he said. “We have good types of law [in name], but not much substance in the content.”
Those words were echoed by Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, a free legal aid organization.
“The law may be good, but the court is not and is not working properly,” Mr. Sam Oeun said.
“When institutions, judicial officials and the law is not strong, it brings about a lack of faith from the people,” he said. “These days, we don’t have rule of law yet.”