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Impunity In Cambodia: How Human Rights Offenders Escape Justice

In a new report published today, three human rights organizations urged the Royal Cambodian Government to end impunity for perpetrators of human rights violations in Cambodia.

Two Cambodian organizations, Adhoc and Licadho, joined with an international human rights organization, Human Rights Watch, to document the failure of the government at all levels to prosecute civilian and military authorities for killing and torture.

The three organizations called on members of the Consultative Group (CG) on Cambodia, the international donor consortium scheduled to meet in Phnom Penh on June 14, to focus on legal and judicial reform as an integral part of any assistance program. One way to do this would be for the donor group to establish a Rule of Law and Judicial Reform Working Group to evaluate the Cambodian government's progress in improving the human rights situation.

"The role of Cambodia's donors is crucial in promoting major human rights improvements and ending impunity," said Thun Saray, president of Adhoc. "Impunity is one of the major impediments not only for the protection of human rights and the establishment of the rule of law in Cambodia, but for the confidence of donors and investors alike."

During a two-month investigation into impunity in Cambodia, the rights organizations found that a major cause of the problem was a lack of political will by the government to prosecute known human rights abusers. Adding to the problem is the lack of neutrality and independence of the judicial and law enforcement systems, as well as a low level of professionalism in these bodies.

Cambodia also has a law, Article 51 of the Common Statutes on Civil Servants, which gives ministries the right to waive prosecution of their employees, thus providing a form of state-sanctioned impunity to government officials.

The report also identifies as a problem the excessive use of lethal force and misuse of weapons by law enforcement officials. Decades of war have left behind a culture of violence where the instant reaction to an apparent crime is to kill the perpetrator, rather than waiting for a case to work its way through the politicized, weak, and often corrupt court system. In Phnom Penh, for example, the rights organizations found that at least one in every thirteen arrests during 1998 resulted in either death or injury; out of 1,152 arrests, police killed seventy-six people and wounded twelve. The report was based in part on a study by Adhoc and Licadho that found that between January 1997 and October 1998 at least 263 people were allegedly killed by police, military, gendarmes, militia, or civil servants. Roughly half these killings were committed by soldiers, with police responsible for another 22 percent. The vast majority of the killings have gone uninvestigated and unpunished.

"The call to end impunity is not a call for revenge. It is a call for justice," said Kek Galabru, president of Licadho. "Without proper investigations into human rights violations, an important obstacle to the development of democracy remains, which can lead to even worse abuses."

At the February 1999 CG meeting of Cambodia's donors convened by the World Bank in Tokyo, Cambodia received pledges of some U.S. $470 million. However, aid commitments by bilateral donors and international financial institutions were conditioned on the government's implementation of political, economic and social reforms that it promised to undertake.

Prior to the CG meeting, the Cambodian government announced an extensive reform package, including its support for human rights. In the government's report for the meeting, it pledged to reaffirm its "unbreakable attachment to liberal democracy, to the freedom of expression, to an independent judiciary, to neutrality and discipline in the armed forces and national police, to the strengthening of the rule of law and compliance with national and international laws, to encouraging all strata of civil society to participate actively in the political, economic and social life of the country..."

"We urge the donors to strictly monitor the government's compliance with its commitments, in particular on human rights," said Sidney Jones, executive director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "It's time for the government to live up to its pledges and actually launch the reforms needed to end the problem of impunity."

Among the recommendations made by the three human rights organizations to end impunity are the following:

Initiate serious, independent, and thorough investigations and prosecute those responsible for hundreds of killings and other serious human rights violations that have taken place since the founding of the Royal Cambodian Government in 1993.
Repeal Article 51 of the Common Statutes on Civil Servants.
Take immediate steps to discipline or dismiss court officials for failure to prosecute cases and law enforcement officials for failure to investigate and report on cases.
Hold police and military officers accountable for any crimes they commit and enforce prohibitions against their interference in the administration of justice.
Support the program of confiscating unlicensed weapons in Cambodia and back it up by enforcement of prohibitions against illegal use of weapons, whether licensed or not.
Enforce provisions in Cambodian law that require police to report actions involving injury or death of suspects to their superiors. Independent judicial inquiries should be conducted in regard to all such cases.
Periodically rotate police and court personnel to different departments or geographical locations to reduce the possibility of corruption and nepotism.
Enforce legal prohibitions in Cambodian law against out-of-court financial compensation for felonies and major criminal offenses. Police and local officials should not take commissions in settlements of any cases, civil or criminal.
Support the work of local human rights organizations and the Cambodia Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights so that they can continue to monitor and investigate reports of impunity.

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