Accountability squandered?

World Bank should wait for justice in Cambodia

22 June 2012 | Guest comment

Despite a 2011 victory in Cambodia, where a mass eviction in the centre of Phnom Penh was halted and remaining affected families finally gained legal title to the land they had been wrongly denied under a World Bank project, recent arrests have put justice in jeopardy and led to calls for a continued lending freeze by the Bank.

In an unprecedented victory against some of the most powerful forces in South East Asia, in 2011 631 Cambodian families gained legal title to land that had been the subject of a controversial land grab in the bustling center of the capital Phnom Penh. In 2006 the Boeung Kak lake households were wrongly denied the right to have their claims to the land adjudicated and registered in their names under a World Bank-financed land-titling project (see Update 75). In the absence of fair and impartial courts in Cambodia, the families took their case to the Bank’s complaints mechanism, the Inspection Panel, in 2009, which a year later found that they had been denied due process under the project, that Bank policies had not been complied with, and that these omissions had contributed to the “grave harm” that the families suffered through forced eviction.

Despite acknowledging that the safeguard policies had been breached in the Boeung Kak case, the Bank was unable to persuade the Cambodian government to rectify the harm done even after it repeatedly offered to provide the resources to do so. Because of the Bank’s reliance on the cooperation of borrowing governments, including unaccountable regimes like the Cambodian government, there are serious practical limitations on its ability to be accountable to those harmed by its projects – even when it wants to be. We have argued in the past that if the Bank lends to governments that consistently violate safeguard policies and human rights, and refuse to remedy harms suffered, then it must be prepared to provide reparations unilaterally.

Cambodia is not in need of more aid. It is, however, badly in need of more justice.

The Boeung Kak lake saga has unfolded in unexpected ways since the Inspection Panel released its findings. After more than a year of attempting to work with the Cambodian government to implement remedial measures, in May 2011, the Bank president Robert Zoellick took the extraordinary step of suspending all new lending to Cambodia until a resolution is found. By affirming the mandatory nature of Bank operational and safeguard policies, Zoellick’s bold decision had important implications, both within Cambodia and for the Bank as a whole. It sent a rare but bright signal about the sanctity of policies intended to protect people and the environment from harms resulting from development finance. It also appeared to work.

Within a week after this lending freeze became public knowledge, in August 2011 the Cambodian government issued a sub-decree granting title to most of the remaining families over their land in the Boeung Kak area. This marked a significant human rights victory in Cambodia. Thousands of people who were facing the prospect of forced displacement and impoverishment for the first time have formal legal security to their homes and land. Moreover, in a country where powerful people routinely act above the law with impunity, and where poor and marginalised people have no access to justice, ordinary Cambodian families were able to access an impartial accountability mechanism and obtain a just and meaningful remedy. Although the Bank’s decision was undeniably only one contributing factor to the outcome, it was critical in both laying down the law and vindicating and empowering the community.

Despite this considerable victory, the case is by no means closed. At least 90 families have been excluded from the land concession, and over the past few years more than 3,000 families were displaced from their homes in the Boeung Kak area after accepting inadequate compensation under extreme duress. These families are not benefiting in any way from the government’s new policy and since the eviction many have experienced negative social and economic impacts, including impoverishment.

The Boeung Kak community has remained admirably unified in its quest for a resolution for all current and former residents, despite some families already having secured their rights and the risks posed to human rights defenders in Cambodia. In late May this year, residents of Boeung Kak staged a peaceful demonstration on the sand dunes that cover what was once a village on the shores of the lake. Whilst singing about their plight, the protesters were surrounded by a mixed force of military police, anti-riot police and district guards, who proceeded to violently break up the demonstration and arrest 13 female community leaders, including a 72-year-old. Two days later the 13 women were summarily tried, convicted on spurious charges and sentenced to two and a half years imprisonment. During the trial, the police arrested two more community representatives who were waiting outside the court, prepared to testify as witnesses.

Prior to the arrests, the regional management of the Bank had indicated in meetings with NGOs that it was ready to put this uncomfortable episode behind the Bank and get back to business in Cambodia, despite the absence of a comprehensive resolution on Boeung Kak. We argued that this decision would be wrong and contrary to the commitments the Bank has made publicly. If it were to proceed with a resumption of lending in the wake of the recent arrests it would be unconscionable. As 127 civil society organisations from Cambodia and around the world wrote in an open letter to Zoellick and the incoming Bank president Jim Yong Kim in May: “re-engaging now, particularly following the unlawful arrest and imprisonment of Boeung Kak community leaders, would send a dangerous message of approval to the [Cambodian government] and undermine the community’s hope that they will not be left alone in their stand against the powerful forces of injustice.”

Although it is by no means the largest donor to Cambodia, the Bank holds critical leverage. The continuing lending suspension is taking its toll beyond the monetary deficit it represents: the Development Cooperation Forum at which donors traditionally commit funds for the following year was cancelled in 2011 for the first time since 1993, and the coordinating role the Bank previously played amongst donors remains vacant. This situation represents an embarrassing and conspicuous blemish on Cambodia’s efforts to become a reputable member of the international community, including through its chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its candidacy for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Contrary to common belief, with overseas development aid representing approximately 40 per cent of the Cambodian government’s revenue and the country’s rapidly increasing income from natural resource extraction, Cambodia is not in need of more aid. It is, however, badly in need of more justice. The World Bank is in a rare position to push that agenda forward by making it clear that it will maintain the lending freeze until the 13 imprisoned community members are freed and a comprehensive agreement is reached with the majority of Boeung Kak households who are still awaiting a remedy. What Bank president-elect Kim decides to do will have far reaching implications for World Bank accountability and for the cause of justice in Cambodia.

By Natalie Bugalski ( and David Pred (
Inclusive Development International (