The time for legislative transparency is now

With the recent passage of the three judicial reform laws without any civil society consultation, the issue of the lack of legislative transparency is an important one in Cambodia. As Cambodia’s two main political parties finalize a deal to end the year-long political deadlock and the opposition prepares to take its seats in the National Assembly, it is important to look at how legislative transparency can be increased in Cambodia, so that the new National Assembly passes any and all future laws in a transparent manner.

CCHR released a new Briefing Note today on the topic; you can read it in its entirety here, but we’ve also summarized some of the main points below.

What is legislative transparency?

The Transparency and Accountability Initiative defines “transparency” as when information is “presented in plain and readily comprehensible language and formats appropriate for different stakeholders” and “made available in sufficient time to permit analysis, evaluation and engagement by relevant stakeholders.”

Legislative transparency is thus about how a government makes available information about the legislative process – including copies of draft laws, clear schedules and timelines regarding when certain laws will passed, information about parliamentary committees’ debates on the laws, etc. – in an easily-accessible, understandable and timely manner to the general public. More than that, though, legislative transparency is also about ensuring that relevant stakeholders will be engaged with the legislative process.

Legislative transparency is an important element of freedom of expression, which, under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is defined as the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds …

Legislative transparency under the law … and in practice!

The right to freedom of information is protected under Cambodian and international law. However, freedom of information has long been an area of concern, especially in relation to legislative transparency. Laws are almost always drafted under a veil of secrecy, raising questions over the underlying purpose of those laws, when they should be intended to protect citizens’ rights and freedoms.

One of the most pressing concerns is the lack of transparency and the absence of a comprehensive law governing freedom of information. This leaves Cambodians unable to fully participate in the political life of their country, meaning that lawmakers are free to pass laws that are unfavorable to the general public, with very little resistance. This was exemplified by the recent passage of the three laws on judicial reform, which remained unchanged from their draft forms despite the widespread criticism of the laws from civil society stakeholders.

Nevertheless, the government has taken some positive steps to overcome the lack of transparency in Cambodia, with the passing of the Press Law, the Archive Law and the Anti-Corruption Law. However, none of these are sufficient to bring about true legislative transparency in Cambodia.

How can we increase legislative transparency?

In May 2014, the government and UNESCO signed a memorandum of understanding to enact a freedom of information law within three years, with the assistance of the Swedish Government. This freedom of information law must be enacted in a timely manner, in line with internationally accepted standards, and must include specific provisions detailing how legislative transparency is to be undertaken in Cambodia.

In the meantime, by publicly releasing draft laws and addressing and incorporating feedback given by civil society and the public, the government can ensure that lawmakers are accountable to the public. In light of the new political deal, legislative transparency should be made a top priority for the government.

Alysha Khambay, CCHR International Intern, contributed to this blog post.

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