Cambodia's donors last week pledged 1.1 billion dollars to help the country meet its development goals – among them, judicial reform.
Cambodia has democratic elections, but the judiciary is regarded by many as corrupt
This week the United Nations human rights envoy arrived in Cambodia to assess the state of the judiciary and its ability to deliver justice to victims of human rights violations.
Cambodia's judiciary has the dubious distinction of being regarded as the nation's most corrupt institution. And the courts' subservience to the rich and powerful is another charge laid at its door.
The judiciary is an important reform area for donors. But it is also a key area for those interested in human rights, such as the UN's rights envoy Professor Surya Subedi. He arrived here this week on his third trip to monitor the overall situation of human rights.
Professor Subedi told Deutsche Welle the focus of this visit is the judiciary: "How effective the judiciary is, what access people have to the judiciary, and then the administration of justice. These are the three issues I am looking at. Focusing on the ability of the judiciary to dispense justice to the victims of human rights violations."
Professor Subedi will meet with all sides involved in the judicial system. He will also meet ordinary people who use the courts to hear what they think of their experiences.
One organization that recently looked into exactly that is the Center for Justice and Reconciliation, or CJR, a local non-governmental organization.
Defendants denied basic rights
This week CJR released a study which found that defendants are regularly denied basic rights, including the right to be tried in person and the right to cross-examine witnesses. In more than 90 percent of cases, either the defendant or a key witness was not in court.
But there was some good news – more than 90 percent of defendants in felony cases were represented by defense counsel, said CJR director Daravuth Seng.
The UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal in Phnom Penh - "normal" trials often last only 30 minutes
"And so, as far as formalities are concerned, the courts are doing much better than before. However there is still much to be developed in the judicial-legal sector because even with representation the cases last not more than 30 minutes, which means it is more of a formality than actual implementation of the law."
CJR's report said one-third of defendants in the lower courts were tried in absentia. That figure doubled for cases that were appealed – because the Appeal Court is in the capital Phnom Penh, and most people are too poor to get there.
A crucial issue in building democracy
Seng's conclusion: Judicial reform requires more than tackling corruption and political influence. Logistics, administration and ongoing training are all vital to ensure a functioning court system.
Success would benefit Cambodia in other areas too, he said. "It is very hard to have a democracy without proper separation of powers and proper support for the judiciary. I think it is extremely critical that we create a space for them to be independent, and create a support structure that will allow for those who are understanding some of these principles to implement justice as the law requires."
Expect to see similar sentiments expressed in Professor Subedi's final report, and expect to see more money for judicial reform at the next donor meeting in 18 months' time.
Author: Robert Carmichael (Phnom Penh)
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein