Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday fired back at criticism that his cabinet had failed to consult civil society groups and the public before approving three draft laws on the judiciary, saying there was nothing legally obligating his government to do so.
Speaking at a graduation ceremony in the capital, he said non-governmental organizations had no right to ask to be consulted about the three pieces of legislation, which the government says are aimed at making the justice system more transparent and independent as part of long-awaited reforms.
“The law as set out in our Constitution doesn't allow us to hand over draft laws to anyone besides those who compose the laws, before they are forwarded to the Council of Ministers and the National Assembly,” Hun Sen said at the Asia Euro University graduation ceremony.
“The law doesn't say we need to forward them to the NGOs.”
He said his government had already “heard many recommendations” from civil society groups on various issues, warning rights groups should not overstep their bounds.
“Don't demand things beyond what’s within your rights. You should be ashamed of yourselves, and just enjoy the rights that are given to you as NGOs.”
Hun Sen’s cabinet approved the three draft laws—the Law on the Organization and Functioning of the Courts, the Law on the Organization and Functioning of the Supreme Council of the Magistracy, and the Law on the Statute of Judges and Prosecutors—at a meeting on April 18 without releasing the texts of the legislation.
The drafts follow Hun Sen’s promise of deep reforms to the judiciary in September following elections in July last year that led to a deadlock between his long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
The CNRP has repeatedly called for reforms to Cambodia’s judiciary, which has been criticized for corruption and bowing to political pressure.
Rights activists who saw initial drafts of the three pieces of legislation earlier this year said those versions would not do enough to ensure the independence of judges and prosecutors and would give too much sway to a politically appointed justice minister.
Last week, the Cambodian Center of Human Rights issued a statement condemning the cabinet’s approval of the laws “without prior publication and open and broad consultations.”
The lack of transparency about the laws had raised questions about what Hun Sen’s government was “trying to hide” in them, it said.
CCHR also called on parliament to postpone adopting them until after members of the CNRP, which has boycotted parliament amid an eight-month deadlock with the CPP over the disputed elections, take their seats.
Encouraging effective laws
Ou Virak, a member of CCHR’s board of directors, said in response to Hun Sen’s comments Monday that the government should seek the people’s input and recommendations from NGOs on any pieces of legislation it writes up.
“A government that is open to [input from] the NGOs [on proposed legislation] would be a responsible government,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
"We don't want to interfere in any political party’s work, but the government doesn't belong to one single group. We want to encourage effective laws.”
Ny Chakriya, chief investigator for local rights group Adhoc, said Cambodia’s citizens should have a say in the laws because they have a stake in them.
"The three draft laws, just like all other laws, are not reserved for Hun Sen. The laws are composed for the people,” he told RFA.
According to a government statement issued after the April 18 meeting, the three draft laws are the first step in a series of promised judicial reforms.
“The laws aim to guarantee the independence of the judiciary, maintain discipline of judges, and to assure the good functioning of Cambodian courts,” the statement said, according to reports.
"The compilation of the three laws is an important beginning of legal and judicial reforms.”
Drafted by the Ministry of Justice with the aid of French legal experts, the three pieces of legislation are based on experiences of countries with advanced rule of law, it said.
Rights groups said they expect the final draft copies to be released soon before the legislation is submitted to the National Assembly.
An initial draft of the Law on the Statute of Judges and Prosecutors obtained by RFA earlier this year did not specify that prosecutors and judges may not be members of a political party, raising concerns about guarantees of their independence.
In addition, a previous draft of the Law on the Organization and Functioning of the Supreme Council of Magistracy put the Ministry of Justice in control of the council’s budget, raising concerns from legal experts that the council would lose independence.
Others raised concerns the law would give too much power to the justice minister—a political appointee—to nominate and terminate judges.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.