“When the World Justice Project published its rule of law index last year, Cambodia came in at 99 out of 102 countries surveyed, ahead of only Afghanistan, Venezuela and Zimbabwe. This ranks Cambodia lower than any of its ASEAN peers --even Myanmar achieved better scores--”.
In 2010, the UN Special Rapporteur on Cambodia described Cambodia’s judiciary as “an institution that does not command the confidence of people from many walks of life’. The judiciary is the country’s most distrusted and corrupt institution, beating even the police force. In June 2014, three laws were passed to strengthen the Ministry of Justice vis-à-vis the Judiciary. So most Cambodians simply avoid the courts, because of mistrust or because they are inaccessible to the poor and marginalised. The number of lawyers has decreased, especially in rural areas. This shortage is curious, considering that hundreds of students graduate from Cambodia’s law schools. But only a few dozen are admitted each year by the country’s Bar Association, whose admission process is corrupt and politicized. Far from its early resistance to law reform, the Government now embraces the law. It has manipulated it to favour elites and to lash out against opponents, launching defamation law suits against NGO workers and opponents. It is ‘rule by law rather than rule of law’. The internationalised process for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal did enhance the capacities of many Cambodian lawyers, but with little impact on the country’s justice system. Violence under the Khmer Rouge regime devastated the country’s physical infrastructure and human resources, including legal professionals. The 1980s brought a socialist court system subordinated to the central party, and subtly nested existing patrimonial structures into state institutions. Generous international efforts have failed to instil a rule of law culture. The result: a façade legal framework, behind which lies poor implementation and practice by badly paid officials, vulnerable to bribes. But Cambodia is not static. Demographic changes will be a major factor. The current compact between the ruling elite and those who survived the conflicts of the past --peace and stability at the cost of foregoing rights-- will change with a new generation, better educated and with different expectations.