Cambodia’s long-awaited juvenile justice law looks set to be adopted within months, following the draft’s approval by Prime Minister Hun Sen in April.

More than 700 minors are currently incarcerated in the country’s overcrowded prisons, an estimated 40 per cent of them on pre-trial detention. While some face serious charges, the majority are held for drug-related offences and minor misdemeanours.

The age of criminal responsibility in Cambodia is 14, yet its penal code lacks specific laws addressing juvenile offenders. Instead, they have been dealt the same legal hand as adults: imprisoned with them in cells, facing sentences of up to 10 years.

‘Because they receive no education inside, they learn from other adult prisoners,’ explains Op Vibol, programme manager at the NGO Legal Aid Cambodia, who has worked closely with authorities on the draft law. ‘So we often see that children are imprisoned for small crimes, but when released they commit serious offences.’

The new law therefore prioritizes rehabilitation over punishment, based on the view that children in conflict with the law are more often victims than offenders. It also affords greater protection, through specialized juvenile police, courts and prisons.

Despite being a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and recipient of overseas aid, the Cambodian government has been sluggish to act on juvenile justice. Many are therefore sceptical about its capacity, or commitment, to realizing the new provisions.

‘There is nothing in the draft which guarantees quality or expertise among police or judges,’ says Cambodia-based legal consultant Billy Tai. ‘And as long as the international community is paying the bill, it is doubtful whether Cambodia’s government and judiciary can really take ownership of these laws.’

Zoe Holman