Cambodia Bridges to Justice employee fills out paperwork for a client

When the Khmer Rouge’s reign ended, Cambodia was left without law schools, courthouses, judges, or lawyers. Thirty years ago there were fewer than 10 lawyers working in the country.  Rebuilding the legal system posed a daunting challenge, but Karen Tse was up to the task. She trained the first 25 legal aid lawyers in Cambodia in 1994, including Ouk Vandeth. The two worked together to found Cambodia Bridges to Justice (CBJ), an offshoot of International Bridges to Justice (IBJ), which Tse had founded years prior.

Twenty years later, with the help of Legal Aid Cambodia (LAC), the Cambodian Ministry of Justice, and the Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia, CBJ had expanded to cover 20 of the country’s 25 provinces through nine legal aid centers. As of 2015, CBJ had trained hundreds of human rights defenders, represented over 12,000 criminally accused people, and educated over 5 million people about their legal rights.

CBJ won the 2022 World Justice Challenge Access to Justice Prize for their work providing legal aid in Cambodia’s Courts of Appeal.  In the year since receiving the award, CBJ has completed an appeals court project in conjunction with OHCHR Cambodia to provide legal assistance to 61 priority cases, provided legal representation to over 100 individuals, and published various resource materials for lawyers and the public. Despite their hard work, there is still a long way to go, as Cambodia’s prison system is currently filled to over 345% capacity. Vandeth stated that in the face of his country’s troubling rule of law environment, the Challenge “encouraged us and reassured us that even though we are still on the journey to realizing access to justice for all in Cambodia, we have made significant progress.”

CBJ was born out of partnerships with IBJ, LAC, and other like minded organizations, and the principle of working together to make change remains a cornerstone of CBJ’s mission. As funding for legal aid organizations in Cambodia has become more difficult to obtain, rather than competing for limited resources, CBJ banded together once again with other groups fighting for change to create a network of legal aid organizations. Representatives of the network came together in a recent webinar organized by the World Justice Project (WJP) to share the work they have been doing to advance access to justice for all in Cambodia.

Each partner in the network uses unique approaches to tackle key justice issues in Cambodia. LAC has been working in Cambodia since 1995 to provide legal aid for human rights defenders and others, focusing specifically on children and the most vulnerable members of society. In 2016, LAC helped draft the Juvenile Justice Law, which provided children with the right to have family or a lawyer present throughout the legal process. In addition to being part of the drafting process, LAC has trained over 74 justice stakeholders on the new legislation and represented over 400 children.

Human rights defenders and victims of land grabbing in Cambodia are vulnerable to intimidation, threats, and state-sanctioned violence, and many Cambodians remain largely unaware of their rights, which leads to the inability to exercise those rights. Cambodia Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) has implemented a court monitoring project to focus on human rights defenders and victims of land grabbing, with the goal of increasing protection for these groups and providing access to justice through fair trials. As part of this project, ADHOC has been able to monitor 166 cases, including 78 cases of human rights violations and 27 cases of land rights disputes. Despite the progress they are making, ADHOC still faces frequent challenges in accessing courtrooms, which inhibits its ability to carry out this work on a larger scale.

As work continues to be done to advocate for reform in the judicial system in Cambodia, it is important for there to also be alternative dispute resolution mechanisms available at the community level. The Community Legal Empowerment Center (CLEC) uses Peace Tables to mediate cases on land and natural resources, specifically among indigenous communities in Cambodia. The Peace Table process brings together rural community members and government and private sector representatives to settle land disputes. The accessibility of Peace Tables has allowed more cases to be settled outside of court and has led to a decrease in instances of land grabs and evictions. CLEC took part in a case wherein 200 families had their land taken in 2006 by sugar companies. Through extensive negotiations with various members of the investment chain, 300 hectares of land were returned in 2018 and in 2023, $1.2 million was paid by the companies to the communities affected.

The essential work being carried out by these organizations is not possible without external support and funding. The Center for Law and Transformative Change (CLTC) has undertaken a project to evaluate the law and justice reform work being done by civil society organizations in Cambodia and identify stories of change and success. Through its recent report, CLTC shares the examples of progress it has seen through close partnership with NGOs across the country, outlines recommendations for continued change, and calls for action in reinvesting in the country’s legal and justice reform by emulating and following the work of local leaders. 

Despite the persistent challenges these organizations are facing, they remain optimistic about the future of the Cambodian judicial system, and their determination to create systemic, holistic change is unwavering. Tse noted that the work being done by CBJ and other members of the network to focus on system change has led to a shift in perspective throughout the justice system. 

“Together we are working hard to protect the rule of law," said Vandeth, of Cambodia Bridges to Justice, "because we [know from] experience from not that long ago what happens when we let go of the rule of law.”

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