Human Rights Watch says three draft laws on the verge of approval by the National Assembly, intended to assure the independence of Cambodia’s courts, would do just the opposite, and has called on the government to withdraw them.
The Council of Ministers approved the trio of “fundamental laws”—on the Organization and Conduct of the Supreme Council of the Magistracy, on the Statue of the Magistracy, and on the Organization of Court Organs—and sent them to the National Assembly last month.
The U.N. and Cambodia’s foreign donors have been urging the government to pass the laws for many years. But the latest drafts have raised concerns that they would only strengthen Prime Minister Hun Sen’s already tight grip on the courts, which are regularly accused of rampant corruption, political interference and handing down fixed decisions.
In a statement released Saturday, Human Rights Watch also raised alarms about provisions in the drafts that would get the justice minister involved in key decisions made by the Supreme Council of the Magistracy, which appoints, disciplines and oversees Cambodia’s court officials.
“The Cambodian government has made annual promises to the Cambodian people and donors to take steps to establish an independent judiciary but has utterly failed to keep them,” said Brad Adams, the U.S.-based advocacy group’s Asia director. “By enacting laws empowering the justice minister over the judiciary’s ruling body, Hun Sen can formalize his de facto power over the courts.”
Human Rights Watch said that if the government were sincere in its efforts to reform to judiciary, it would remove the justice minister from the Supreme Council and ensure that all members were independent, qualified and without political party affiliation. It urged the government to put the drafts up for public debate and input.
At the end of a weeklong mission to Cambodia on Friday, U.N. Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Flavia Pansieri made the same suggestion.
“It is crucial that these laws are subject to broad-based consultations with all concerned stakeholders and are brought into force only when they are in conformity with international standards,” she said.
NGOs have also urged the government not to vote on the laws until the opposition CNRP takes its seats at the Assembly.
CPP spokesman and senior lawmaker Cheam Yeap dismissed all those concerns, insisting that he and Mr. Hun Sen had more than enough expertise and experience between them to the craft the best possible laws.
“I have a doctoral degree in law and I hold three more doctoral degrees in economics. Prime Minister Hun Sen has worked at the National Assembly for more than 33 years,” he said, when asked whether the government would seek input.
One of Mr. Yeap’s degrees is a “post-doctorate” from Isles International University, an unaccredited institution and a diploma mill that once operated in Cambodia. Another comes from California Global University, which offers degrees online.
Mr. Yeap said the three judicial laws were ready for vote, though a date has not been set.