EWMI’s Program on Rights and Justice II (PRAJ II), funded by USAID, came to an end in December 2014 after six years of activity. Designed to build the foundation of support for reform of the justice sector in Cambodia, the program worked to strengthen the voice of civil society in promoting change while helping Cambodian legal institutions continue their reform efforts.
Through a coincidence of timing, the tenure of the outgoing UN Special Rapporteur for the human rights situation in Cambodia closely corresponded with the lifespan of PRAJ II (2008-2014). Over the course of his tenure, the Special Rapporteur, Surya Subedi, made many trips to Cambodia, meeting with people from all segments of Cambodian society, and issued five substantial reports. In January 2015, Subedi made his final trip to Cambodia. In his last press conference, he noted many of the ongoing human rights problems in Cambodia. However, looking back to the beginning of his mandate, he had this to say: “The major difference between then and now rests in the people. They are no longer afraid to speak out. People know their rights and are ready to claim them.”
Quantitative data supports Subedi’s observation. In the final months of PRAJ II, the project conducted a national legal aid awareness survey, mirroring in methodology a similar survey conducted eight years before under PRAJ I. The results were astounding. Whereas only 20% of those surveyed in 2006 were aware of the existence of legal aid and where to access it, in 2014 a full 54% of respondents were so aware, a nearly threefold increase. The dramatic opposition gains in the 2013 elections, and the protests thereafter, further support Subedi’s claim. It is significant that the themes of land grabbing and deforestation, a key focus of advocacy by many PRAJ II partners, were underlined by the opposition in the electoral campaign.
Social change is a complex phenomenon, the result of many political, economic and demographic factors. But there is no doubt that Cambodian civil society has changed in the past six years and that PRAJ II contributed to that change. The numbers speak for themselves: over 187,000 Cambodians participated in PRAJ II-sponsored constituency-building activities during this period, and over 35,000 advocacy initiatives resulted from PRAJ II support. The project trained over 37,000 people on topics related to rights awareness and advocacy, and by targeting the next generation of advocates and leaders – over 5,000 law students trained – amplified the long-term effect of its efforts. The visible engagement of legal defense teams in high profile cases involving activists and human rights defenders demonstrated the subtle power of asserting one’s rights, even when the results were unjust.
Cambodian civil society – and the country as a whole – remains fraught with problems and challenges, and ultimately it will be the Cambodian people on their own who must bring Cambodia to a brighter day. But over the course of PRAJ II, as Subedi noted, a page has been turned. Whatever Cambodia’s future holds, its civil society will be at the center of it.