By: William E. Todd
The Montagnard refugee dilemma continued to make news this week, as many here in Cambodia and in the international community remain concerned about the status of those seeking asylum. According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, there are currently more than one hundred Montagnards in Phnom Penh who are seeking to register for asylum. The media also reports that a significant number of Montagnards now in Cambodia have not been registered or are not pursuing asylum due to concerns about due process and the rule of law, leaving them in legal limbo. This situation provides Cambodia with an opportunity to demonstrate a responsive and rules-based process that provides a positive example for other countries.
This dilemma leads me to this week’s question, which is on the minds of many Cambodians: “Which reforms do you think the National Assembly should focus on in the near term?” This is a good question and one that many will debate. In my opinion, the country would best be served by focusing on topics that benefit the average Cambodian. Rather than making a new NGO law the top priority, which I believe is not needed, the National Assembly could consider addressing poverty, education, health care, and environmental protection. However, improving the rule of law, which encompasses a broad range of topics that would ultimately benefit Cambodian citizens, is an area where both parties could work together.
Rule of law is incredibly important, and not just for those seeking asylum. At its most basic level, rule of law refers to holding people and institutions, including the government, accountable to “laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated.” In other words, it is about fairness – transparent legal processes, equal treatment, and unbiased adjudication. Rule of law is at the heart of the relationship between the government and the people, and as such it is closely linked with reforms that would improve the lives of ordinary Cambodians. Given the challenges and opportunities that exist in Cambodia today, I would encourage both parties to pursue laws that promote democracy by making society more inclusive and free, and to implement reforms that promote the rule of law rather than pursing restrictive measures such as the draft NGO law.
A positive example where the government is already implementing reforms that promote the rule of law is the creation of the National Commercial Arbitration Centre (NCAC), which is intended to resolve commercial disputes more efficiently. An effective mechanism to resolve disputes gives foreign and domestic investors the confidence to open and expand their businesses. A strong NCAC provides both direct and indirect benefits to the Cambodian people through increased investment and job creation. Applying these same principles of transparency and equitable administration to the entire judicial system would offer even greater dividends to the country, especially during a time of strong economic growth which could lead to Cambodia becoming an investment hub in ASEAN.
In the business community, upholding the rule of law often means providing a reliable mechanism for resolving disputes, particularly those involving contracts. The sanctity of contracts is the cornerstone of trade and commerce. If a contract will not be honored and cannot be enforced in Cambodia, companies will seek investment opportunities in other countries. Recently, a number of important companies have talked to me about the problems that they are having in resolving disputes with other businesses and entities in Cambodia. They are concerned that they will not be able to resolve these disputes through a fair and transparent legal process. Due to their uncertainty in the mechanism to resolve their disputes, they may consider leaving Cambodia thereby taking with them the potential for good jobs and economic growth. Strengthening the rule of law for resolving contract disputes would help to alleviate much of this uncertainty.
Upholding the rule of law would also benefit Cambodia’s economy by providing a safe and stable investment environment. Sudden changes to already existing rules and laws can create uncertainty when foreign investors view the investment climate as unstable. Lately, there has been a lot of discussion about Prakas 1139, which introduced new tax registration requirements for businesses operating in Cambodia. As currently written, this new registration requirement has fostered uncertainty in the foreign business community and is causing many companies to reconsider their investment strategy in Cambodia. By providing a stable and open environment that businesses and investors can rely on, Cambodia will be able to attract more companies to invest in Cambodia, thereby creating more jobs.
Promoting rule of law not only has economic benefits; it also lays the foundation for a more stable and democratic society and goes hand-in-hand with promoting human rights. Part of establishing a system governed by the rule of law is developing a set of clear standards that are upheld to the benefit of the public. By providing clear rules and laws the government would increase the public’s faith in the government and promote societal harmony. An example of this would be in the area of land disputes. A strong rule of law program would ensure that the government is able to resolve land disputes in a fair and equitable manner, improving confidence in the government’s ability to address complex issues in a just and meaningful way.
The United States is committed to helping Cambodia strengthen the rule of law in a number of critical areas. One area where we have been working together closely is in the protection of intellectual property rights (IPR). As with many rule of law issues, better protection of IPR promotes economic growth by attracting investment and increasing competitiveness. By doing more to protect IPR, the government is sending a positive message that it wants innovators to come to Cambodia. Last year, the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) held IPR enforcement workshops in Cambodia for prosecutors. Additionally, over the next few months, the Embassy will send a number of prosecutors and other officials to the United States for training at the USPTO Academy. The goal of these and similar efforts is to strengthen the rule of law, improve democratic institutions, and encourage greater respect for the rights and privileges that are guaranteed under the law.
I believe that, at this time, the government has the opportunity to not only promote laws that make society more inclusive and free, but to also implement reforms that promote the rule of law. As U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower once said, “The world no longer has a choice between force and law; if civilization is to survive, it must choose the rule of law.” Rule of law is the foundation of a modern, productive society. The United States encourages Cambodia to continue on the path towards meaningful reform by focusing on promoting and strengthening the rule of law, which not only has a wide impact on the country’s overall economic prosperity and development, but will also lead to an increasingly democratic and prosperous future.
I would like to again thank you for reading my column this and every week. Feel free to send me questions in English or Khmer at AskAMBToddPP@state.gov and follow my blog at http://blogs.usembassy.gov/todd
William E. Todd is U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia.