Canadian Lawyers Making a Difference in Cambodia

Cambodia is slowly recovering from the barbarism of the Khmer Rouge regime and the subsequent civil war that devastated the nation during the last quarter of the twentieth century. The current authoritarian government has been in power for nearly three decades. Basic constitutional freedoms of speech, the press and assembly are not fully guaranteed . Corruption is debilitating and rampant in the political, judicial and economic systems: Cambodia has the dubious distinction of being viewed by investors as Southeast Asia’s most corrupt country and the 17th most corrupt in the world. Politically motivated prosecutions and detention of political opponents, journalists and labour leaders are common and often go unpunished, and there are reports of extrajudicial executions.

About a quarter of the population of nearly 16 million live below the national poverty line of U.S$1 per day , while the rich grow richer .Per capita income is increasing rapidly but remains low in comparison with other states in the region. Access to adequate housing has been compromised by forced evictions and dishonest expropriation of land. Ethnic minorities, women and LGBT Cambodians suffer extensive discrimination and violence. Human trafficking and environmental degradation are widespread.

Yet there are also positive signs. A recent deal between the government and the opposition provides a framework for political and electoral reform in the wake of a 2013 election condemned as fraudulent by the opposition. Social media and access to international broadcasting continue unrestricted, unlike the situation in Cambodia’s neighbours, and the English-language press maintains a critical focus on the government’s activities. International pressure has secured the release of some dissidents imprisoned in particularly egregious circumstances. The government itself has taken some progressive steps, including greater recognition of land rights and the establishment of a Ministry of Women’s Affairs to counter gender discrimination and domestic violence. The need for foreign investment and the emergence of a middle class have provided incentives to develop a stable society that respects the rule of law. Of particular importance is the continuing operation of a significant number of NGOs dedicated to social political, labour and legal change.

It is clear that further progress requires the involvement of legally-trained individuals who can formulate and enforce change based on the Constitution and international human rights law (Cambodia is a party to the International Covenants on Civil and Political and Social, Economic and Cultural Rights).This article describes two initiatives in this direction undertaken by a few Canadian lawyers.

Cambodian Legal Education for Women (CLEW)

CLEW is a Canadian charity that provides full four-year scholarships at the Royal University of Law and Economics (RULE) in the capital city of Phnom Penh to deserving young women from rural areas who are unable to afford the cost of a university education. Traditionally these women face a future of arranged marriage in their village, farming a small plot of land to sell produce in local markets. The bright and lucky minority who finish high school might aspire to employment as teachers in local schools, but leaving the village to attend university is almost unheard of. In 2008 the small (five lawyers) Toronto law firm of Bennett Gastle started CLEW, and since then has brought more than 45 of these women to pursue legal studies at RULE. Remarkably, over this six-year period only two have failed to complete the full undergraduate L.L.B. program.

On arrival in Phnom Penh the students live together in their own dormitory. This is important because it reassures parents that their children will live in a supervised setting and get the support they need to adapt to an urban environment that is not always friendly to newcomers from rural areas. It also nurtures group cohesiveness.

It costs less than$2,000U.S. per year to pay the tuition and living expenses for each student. Most of these costs are covered by donations from Bennett Gastle’s clients and friends and the proceeds of an annual golf tournament and dinner-dance, with the firm picking up any shortfall. The firm itself funds all administrative, supervisory and recruitment expenses. Chuck Gastle and Elizabeth Bennett-Martin, the firm’s managing partners, each travel to Cambodia at least once a year to interview prospective students in their home villages and to liaise with the students and review the progress and quality of the program. From five students in 2008, the initiative has expanded to now support about 20 students a year in both English- and Khmer-language L.L.B. courses– at a total annual cost of around $40,000U.S.

The past couple of years have also seen growth in the sophistication of the initiative. Plan Cambodia, an NGO that specializes in health and education issues facing young Cambodian women, now does some preliminary screening of promising students. LexisNexis provides free database access to all RULE law students, donates books to its library, and has produced a video chronicling the impact of CLEW on particular students. Gastle has recently secured a new and larger dormitory and hopes to finance even more students.

The value of CLEW exists not only in the number of young women who have been rescued from poverty through education, but also in the number of graduates who are working in areas vital to their country’s development. Most graduates will not have access to the exclusive club of some 700 lawyers licensed to practise law in Cambodia, since admission to the Bar is restricted and expensive. But many have found other ways to use their legal knowledge and skills in the cause of progress. For example, two graduates are actively involved in improving the status of women, one by directing a women’s shelter and the other as an executive in the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. Two others work on land issues, one helping farmers secure title to property and the other dealing with land reform and property disputes in the Ministry of Justice. Yet another is concerned with the rights of Cambodia’s indigenous minorities and liaises with the United Nations on these issues.

Vis East Moot Foundation Capacity-Building Project

The Vis Moot, inaugurated in 1993, is a well-known law student moot competition centering on international arbitration and the United Nations Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods (CISG). It brings together approximately 300 law school teams from around the world to Vienna in the week before Easter each year. The Vis East Moot, established in 2003, uses the same moot problem for a sister competition involving a maximum of 100 teams from 30 jurisdictions. The Vis East takes place in Hong Kong during the week before the Vienna moot. Any law school in the world can enter either or both of the competitions.

As part of an initiative to provide the knowledge and skills of the Vis Moot to Asian countries that need them most, the Vis East Foundation Board recently approved Cambodia as the location of the first capacity-building project. Facilitated by CLEW’s contacts in the country, the ten-day intensive course was organized and planned by Louise Barrington, a Canadian lawyer and arbitrator who also serves in a voluntary capacity as Director of the Vis East Moot and the Foundation. The 80 hour course was taught in Phnom Penh between September 29 and October 8, 2014. Each of four participating law schools agreed to send seven or eight promising third or fourth year students, along with one faculty member responsible for mentoring the students over the year and assisting with providing a similar program next year. Two of the universities also donated teaching space, but there was no registration fee for either the schools or the students.

Taught in English, the course covered sources of international and comparative law, international commercial law (especially the CISG), legal reasoning and research, international arbitration, conflict of laws, and oral and written advocacy. The faculty consisted of arbitrators, lawyers and professors: three from Canada and one each from the Netherlands, Hong Kong and the United States. The teaching was interactive and included team exercises. The faculty donated their time and expertise, with the Foundation paying their airfare and accommodation in a modest hotel.

The course was clearly an educational success. The students adapted quickly and with enthusiasm to a North American teaching style that is virtually unknown in Asian schools. As the days progressed, they became increasingly confident in their ability to function in English, their understanding of the legal concepts they were studying, and their aptitude to acquire sophisticated legal skills. Exercises involving teams composed from different schools showed students the importance of teamwork in undertaking legal tasks and created an opportunity to establish networks with new colleagues who share similar interests. Students whose schools compete in the Vis Moot will benefit to an even greater extent, though sadly not all schools will find the funding to travel to Hong Kong. Two schools have vowed to continue practising over the coming months and to “compete” within Cambodia with the teams that are able to go. But all of these students, with their fluency in English and new international knowledge and skills, are well-positioned to participate in the development of their country.

It is often assumed that making progress towards democracy and economic and social development requires at least the resources of governments and large corporations and law firms. Yet here a small law firm and a foundation operating on a shoestring have managed to combine their contacts and resources to make a real difference to the 75 or so students who have so far completed these two programs. As both of these initiatives demonstrate, individual lawyers, modest voluntary associations and small law firms and individuals with imagination, commitment and energy can also contribute incrementally to meeting the objectives of alleviating poverty, creating empowerment and promoting the rule of law.

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  1. Mr. Claydon, It’s interesting to see that Cambodia is one of the many ratifying parties to the International Covenants particularly the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESC). However, given the economic, social and political conditions you’ve outlined in your post, I’m wondering whether such International Covenants have enough bite to enable social, political or economic progress. Is this because these agreements have not been implemented as they should by the ratifying parties, or for lack of oversight?

    I’ve suggested in the past here on Slaw and elsewhere that the ICESC could be amended to include an indexed living wage that could work to reduce some of the hardships that plague nations such such as Cambodia and as global conditions would have it — even the western nations economic and social conditions given what they currently are. Perhaps it’s time that everyone big, small and otherwise get together and sincerely work on making these International Covenants effective. Thanks for sharing the Cambodia initiative.

  2. Verna,
    Although the rights in the ICESC Covenant are to be achieved “progressively” and the reporting requirement seems to be scant oversight,ratification does make it impossible for the government to argue that these are matters of “domestic jurisdiction,” as non-parties can claim, and gives the U.N. a reason to intervene(and it has). Perhaps more important, it provides a standard to which unions, the opposition and NGOs can hold the government. There has been some progress, though not enough, in raising wages in the important garment industry. But as you note, developed countries are not doing too well either, as demonstrated by the extremely low minimum wage in the US and the appalling affordable housing situation in Canada’s largest city.