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Pepperdine | Caruso School of Law

Globalization in Cambodia: An Unfinished Work (Part III of III)

by Jeff Cook

While I characterized the economic benefit globalization has brought to Cambodia as a mixed bag, I think the effect on the justice system is a work in progress.  Beginning with the Paris Peace Agreement in 1991, which ended a decades old conflict and set up a framework for free and fair elections, the international community has had a significant influence over domestic politics.  This influence has wavered at times to be sure, but with the growing reliance on international partnerships for economic success, international influence is on the rise.  For the justice system this is a favorable trend.  In the last two years Cambodia has passed a new and comprehensive criminal procedure code and robust anti-trafficking laws.  These were welcome changes to continued reliance on the out-dated 1993 UNTAC Provisions on Criminal Law and the reliance on a provision against "debauchery" to govern all trafficking offenses.  Both the criminal procedure code and the anti-trafficking laws were completed with international consultation and support.

Passing the laws was a giant leap in the right direction, but the enforcement of the provisions has been progressing at a crawl.  For example, it was under this newly enacted procedural and anti-trafficking framework that a trial involving four perpetrators and five victims was to proceed late last year.  After reviewing the evidence, however, the judge determined that the perpetrators had been tried under the wrong article.  Normally a trial judge can change the article under which the charges are filed without scheduling a new trial, but because the original charge was a misdemeanor, this could not happen.  In Cambodia misdemeanors are tried by one judge, whereas felony charges require three judges.  The case had to be retried. 

The court rescheduled the trial for September of this year.  Lawyers and social workers prepared the victims and transported the whole crew to the trial locale - 5 hours away from Phnom Penh.  The morning of the trial the girls dressed up, nervous, but ready for the big day.  Unfortunately, upon arriving at the court we discovered that two of the judges were out of town for training and the trial could not take place.  Disappointed, discouraged and drained we returned to Phnom Penh, but not before making clear to the presiding judge that we needed to receive notice of delays prior to the day of trial.

The trial was rescheduled for November, and once again we prepared diligently and transported the appropriate personnel to the city where the trial was to take place.  To our utter amazement after arriving at court, we were again informed that the same two judges were away -- this time receiving education in Vietnam.  The presiding judge insisted that she did not know that the two judges were going to be gone until the previous evening, but the result was the same -- dejection.  The trial has been rescheduled for the beginning of December, and we hope and pray that it will move forward this time.

This experience is symptomatic of the difficulty faced in implementing the new legal provisions.  It was very promising that international norms regarding trafficking were passed into law and supported by the highest officials in Cambodia.  I only hope that this support for passing the laws shifts to the infrastructure and personnel tasked with effectively implementing them.  As they say, the devil is in the details.