Monday, August 21, 2017

Opening the door wider on juvenile justice reform

By Vanna Lim

Ms. CHHENG Vanna, in her office with a copy of the Law on Juvenile Justice on her desk©UNICEF Cambodia/2017/Vanna Lim 

Phnom Penh, Cambodia, August 2017: The new Juvenile Justice Law (JJL) that UNICEF and other partners helped the government to draft is having a favourable impact on the way child offenders are treated in Cambodia, with the aim to replace incarceration with restorative justice.

The JJL was ratified to realize the rights of children, with a focus on diversion which is an alternative measure to arrest and detention through alternative procedures such as a police caution; a written or verbal apology; community service; or participation in a life skills course.

After more than a decade in design, JJL is the first law of its kind in Cambodia to protect the rights of young offenders. It was signed by Royal Proclamation in July 2016 and came into force in January 2017.

Children in Cambodia can be held responsible for breaching the criminal code from the age of 14 and those charged are usually treated as adults and detained in adult prisons.

This is contrary to the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, of which Cambodia is a signatory, which states children in conflict with the law should be treated in accordance with their age and detention should be a measure of last resort.

The implementation of this unique legislation is a huge challenge and interested parties are currently implementing a three-year execution plan to ensure it is utilized fully according to the letter of the law.

JJL has already led to improvements in juvenile justice procedures. For example, dialogue between the President of the Court of First Instance of Siem Reap and the Provincial Department of Social Affairs, Veteran and Youth Rehabilitation of Siem Reap (DoSVY-SRP) has seen the appointment of a social worker to exclusively work with this court. This will enable child offenders to be treated more sympathetically.

Implementation of JJL has also positively impacted on the Provincial Women and Children Consultative Committee (PWCCC) which is building on dialogue to promote more appropriate treatment for children who face the judiciary.

Ms. Chheng Vanna, Deputy-Director of the DoSVY-SRP and Vice-Chairperson of the PWCCC in Siem Reap, expressed satisfaction with the progress of the law. She has attended orientation sessions on it and highlighted the relevant responsibilities of social workers in PWCCC monthly meetings, with a specific focus on diversion.

Ms. Chheng said: “In the past, before the law on juvenile justice was adopted, our monthly meetings discussed only the issues of women and child victims. We never discussed about child offenders.

“We even wanted the offenders to be punished regardless of their age so that the child victim is happy, without thinking of the right of child offenders to be protected by the law.

“Now, with this new law, it requires us to focus on the rights of a child offender because the offender is also a child and therefore we should consider their best interest [as well].”

However, challenges remain. Even with the official enactment of JJL, police in some provinces continue to detain alleged child offenders, regardless of age and the suspected offence.

According to the latest report of the Court of Appeal, as of June 2017, the number of child detainees in pre-trial detention had increased gradually.

This is evidence that interested parties, including police, prosecutors, judges, lawyers and social workers, need to be sensitized and trained on JJL. Another hurdle is that the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGS) is yet to establish diversion programmes.

Ms. Chheng said JJL is not yet fully understood by relevant actors so they need support with training so they can become specialized police officers, prosecutors and judges for children.

Additionally, the mind-set of people in the community needs to change to take into account the new law, especially the concept of diversion. Awareness raising will help avoid controversy between community members and courts over issues such as sentencing decisions.

In response to all of these challenges, UNICEF has financially and technically supported relevant RGC ministries to develop the three-year strategic and operational plan which is expected to be approved by the year-end 2017.

This consultative process involving RGC ministries, UNICEF and NGO partners will address these concerns and review the urgent situation of children in prisons; provide training for officials; the creation of effective diversion programmes; and provision of training schools and rehabilitation facilities for offenders.

After a decade of framing such a momentous piece of legislation, a three-year operational plan is hoped to enable interested parties with the transition stage of JJL so children in Cambodia can fully achieve their rights as stipulated by the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

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