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UN Envoy Fingers Courts as Political Tools

The UN envoy for human rights, Surya Subedi, concluded a 10-day trip to Cambodia with a pointed criticism of the courts, which he said are “facing tremendous challenges in delivering justice for the people of the country, especially the poor and marginalized.”

“A combination of a lack of adequate resources, organizational and institutional shortcomings, a lack of full awareness of the relevant human rights standards, and external interference, financial or otherwise, in the work of the judiciary, has resulted in an institution that does not command the confidence of people from many walks of life,” he said in a statement.

Subedi noted “an alarmingly high number of people in detention due to various shortcomings in the criminal justice system.”

“The instances of miscarriage of justice are far too numerous,” he said. “The constraints on the judiciary’s ability to act according to its mandated role in the constitutional order of Cambodia are manifold. While some are related to gaps in their capacity to deliver justice (including funding, infrastructure and training), other constraints are linked to gaps in their knowledge of human rights law.”

Many judges are committed to justice according to the law, he noted, “but for many this commitment is compromised by external interference. And for others the commitment is just not there.”

Subedi said he “raised specific concerns relating to the judiciary’s role in protecting freedom of expression. And in cases involving land-related rights.”

“I am troubled by the impact of land disputes, land concessions and resettlements on the lives of ordinary people, both in rural and urban areas, miscarriages of justice, and the narrowing of political space for critical debate in society,” Subedi said.

“I call on the Royal Government of Cambodia to introduce appropriate measures to enhance the independence and capacity of the judiciary to enable it to function as an institution capable of providing justice to all in Cambodia,” he said. “If you are poor, weak and dispossessed of your land, you seem to have limited chance to obtain redress either through existing administrative land management systems or through the courts.”

Subedi called on the government to devise a strict timetable to follow his recommendations and encouraged the government to work with civil society organizations.

Subedi, who met with Foreign Minister Hor Namhong and senior government adviser Om Yentieng on his visit, will submit detailed recommendations to the UN’s Human Rights Council in September.

Ek Tha, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said the government “would like completely to deny his speech.”

The government has worked to reform the judiciary, including establishing a school for magistracy, registrars and notaries, he said, and the country produces 55 new judges per year.

“We have laid down a good foundation for our judiciary to work properly in the future,” he said. “We cannot achieve that overnight, given that our country has emerged from more than three decades of civil war and our judges were killed by the Khmer Rouge.”