In 1993, after years of war and the reign of the Khmer Rouge, United Nations-administered elections led to a new coalition government and a new constitution for Cambodia. But peace and stability proved illusive, as warfare among opposing political forces, including the Khmer Rouge, continued. In 1997, the fragile coalition government was destroyed by a coup d'état. While elections followed in 1998, Cambodians are still struggling to strengthen respect for human rights, equal justice and democracy.
Eight years ago, IHRLG began the complicated process of helping this devastated society rebuild itself. To strengthen local civil society groups throughout Cambodia, we created the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force to give activists the necessary skills to monitor violations of human rights and to disseminate their reports throughout Cambodia and to international bodies, such as the United Nations Commission for Human Rights. The Task Force has been locally managed since 1997. Between 1998 and 2000, IHRLG implemented a Civil Society Project to train and partner with seven Cambodian NGOs, three of which focus on the rights of ethnic minorities and others that focus on women's human rights. One our most notable achievements is the Cambodian Defenders Project (CDP), the first and largest legal service organization in Cambodia, staffed by Cambodian lay people whom we trained as legal human rights defenders who have since become lawyers.
An independent NGO as of 2001, CDP operates four provincial offices that work collaboratively with the head office in Phnom Penh, providing free legal representation to the poor and victims of human rights abuses, advocating for sound legislation and raising awareness of legal rights, especially among women. Since its launch in 1994, CDP has handled more than 6,000 civil and criminal cases. CDP's major victories include
- Obtaining Cambodia's first acquittal in a case based solely on a confession obtained under torture;
- Successfully filing and receiving the first-ever restraining order to prevent a battering husband from selling his wife's property; and
- Successfully representing more than 300 families in an illegal land seizure case.
CDP created a Women's Resource Center in 1998 -the first entity in Cambodia to provide legal counseling to victims of domestic violence. In 1999, CDP became one of the first NGOs to be formally invited by the new government to comment on draft legislation. Today, judges from all over the country regularly request that CDP lawyers represent parties before them. In 2000, CDP launched a Center Against Trafficking to strategically combine legal representation for victims of trafficking with legislative advocacy and increasing legal literacy among local and civil authority and NGOs, while also building public awareness of the incidence, causes and consequences of trafficking and traffickers' recruitment methods.
A champion of human rights and legal defense in Cambodia, CDP continues to press for transparency in the ongoing process to establish a war crimes tribunal in Cambodia, to promote greater public participation in Cambodia's notoriously closed legislative process and to litigate human rights cases.