Cambodia Country Background
During the Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia’s legal system was completely destroyed. As a result of the regime’s mission to systematically eliminate all of its “enemies”, many judges, prosecutors and lawyers were either executed or killed as a result of forced labor, starvation or disease. The legal profession was severely undermined at every level, with law books burnt and courthouses used as places of torture. Those that survived fled to neighboring countries as Cambodian legal professionals were virtually driven into extinction. Consequently, even today, over twenty years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge and a massive UN intervention in the early 1990s, Cambodia continues to suffer from a significant shortage of lawyers and trained professionals to provide legal services.
Since 2001, IBJ has been helping Cambodia to rebuild its justice system by organizing trainings sessions, rights awareness campaigns, roundtables and providing legal aid services. Through its six offices located in Phnom Penh, Takeo, Pursat, Prey Veng, Rattanakiri and Modulkiri – IBJ holds seminars and training sessions throughout the country to help train attorneys and inform citizens of their rights. These six offices, known as Defender Resource Centers (DRCs) also cover the neighboring Province – including Kampot, Kampong Chhnang, and Svay Rieng. IBJ’s team works in order to ensure that Cambodia recovers from the horror of the past and becomes a place where every single citizen can pursue justice.
Cambodia Legal Needs Assessment
In the aftermath of Pohl Pot’s regime, those arrested simply had no ability to pursue justice and were left in prison indefinitely. The lack of legal oversight increased the likelihood of torture at the hands of prison officials. Cambodia continues to suffer from a significant shortage of lawyers and trained legal professionals to provide legal services to this day.
In the early 1990s, the United Nations established a series of programs to rebuild Cambodia’s justice system, still in ruins nearly two decades after Pohl Pot’s rise to power. In 1994, a team of international lawyers (including IBJ founder and CEO Karen Tse and IBJ Board President Francis James), arrived in Phnom Penh and trained the first cadre of public defenders, at a time when there were fewer than ten lawyers in the entire country (see NY Times article ). The country benefited tremendously from this outpouring of international attention and shortly after the ten-month training, public defender offices were set up. Soon the organizations Cambodian Defenders’ Project (CDP) and Legal Aid of Cambodia (LAC) were formed. Unfortunately, the wane of international interest and funding in the Cambodian legal system threaten the continuity of the work done so far.
With a population of approximately 14 million people, and resident legal aid offices in only 14 of 24 provinces, the Cambodian people are severely lacking in access to justice. While there are criminal justice NGO groups active in every province, many of them focus on assisting mainly women, children or specific types of cases (e.g. land owner rights). Without adequate legal representation, Cambodians are more likely to wait in jail for a trial longer than the law allows. The likely use of torture also rises dramatically in correlation to the amount of time spent in prison. Having legal representation helps to ensure that an accused person’s human rights are protected, especially his or her right of freedom from torture.
IBJ Programming in Cambodia
By training local lawyers and focusing our programming on the development of legal aid services for the entire country, IBJ is striving to help rebuild the legal infrastructure to give each and every Cambodian the access to justice that they are entitled to in law.
IBJ has been assisting Cambodians since 2001 when Legal Aid of Cambodia (LAC), a non-profit, non-governmental organization with the goal of providing legal assistance to the poor and marginalized, invited IBJ to join their efforts to rebuild Cambodia’s legal system. Since then, IBJ has inaugurated their own offices providing direct legal representation for the citizens of six provinces throughout the country, as well as offering practical criminal law skills training and technical support in the form of computers, operational reporting and proposal writing workshops. Disseminating legal awareness by organizing campaigns in rural area has also been one of our organization’s priorities.
In 2005, IBJ worked with LAC to open Cambodia’s eighth provincial legal aid office in Rattanakiri, located in remote north-eastern Cambodia, and home to many ethnic hill tribes. Because the majority of the population there is illiterate and communicates through ethnic dialects rather than in Khmer, Rattanakiri residents are susceptible to a number of rights violations, including illegal land redistribution and the contravention of criminal law protections by local authorities.
The main function of the new offices in the country is to support local defenders by providing them with the training and resources they need to carry out their duty representing persons accused of crimes in their local communities. The lawyers at the offices will also represent individuals accused of crimes in the local area. They will engage in a constructive dialogue with various interlocutors to promote the role of defenders in criminal justice, and will conduct street law campaigns to increase public awareness of the rights of the accused.
The IBJ Defender Resource Centers have played a significant role in providing poor, indigenous and marginalized persons with access to legal services, legal representation and education. In 2008 alone, IBJ lawyers have handled over 150 cases. They have also organized over 120 Advisement of Rights “Street Law” campaigns. By using informal public forums, IBJ staff responds to questions from villagers about existing laws or proper legal procedures, reaching hundreds of participants. Family and marriage law, domestic violence and women’s rights are among the most important issues covered by these sessions, in addition to themes such as land law, forestry law and criminal issues.
In addition to the street law sessions, the IBJ staff also engages clients through court appointments, monthly prison visits and legal consultations, as well as working closely with other NGOs, especially community-based organizations in an effort to allow every Cambodian citizen to have early access to competent legal representation.
IBJ’s Cambodia Program is supported by: