Legal Research in Cambodia: An Impenetrable Opacity

Research in Cambodia is a frustrating experience. Information and data are difficult to identify let alone obtain, and more often than not the information does not exist. 

If social, economic, and environmental information is hard to find, then locating legal information is (nearly) impossible. Digital copies of legal texts are rare, and English translations are rarer still. Though laws establish the general framework and overarching rights and are usually available, much of the detailed framework, muscle for authorization and implementation, and even data are promulgated by sub-decrees. These sub-decrees are released in hard copies of The Royal Gazette and only in Khmer. As a monolingual intern from a country where legal information is easy (if at times expensive) to access, legal research in Cambodia is a labyrinth for which there is no end.

Legal information in the U.S. is endless, and, as law students, we are fortunate enough to have access to extensive databases cataloguing, explaining, and commenting on that legal information. Granted sifting through it all to find the relevant information can test one’s patience, but the information exists and is discoverable. That is not the case in Cambodia.

Today, I met with one of the leading experts on land issues in Cambodia. I asked him a question about a type of land concession for which the legal framework is particularly vague and confusing. Prior to the meeting, I had spent days trying to decipher the legal rules that governed these concessions, attempting to connect the various laws and sub-texts surrounding them into a logical framework. His answer, which I anticipated and dreaded, was that there was no logical framework. Though a law created the possibility for this type of concession and another law created the legal framework to govern it, the framework is ineffective without a sub-decree. As far as anyone can tell, the draft sub-decree was never passed. Yet these concessions have been granted and exist.

Making the legal research process even more difficult is the fact that I can only use information found in the public domain. As an open data organization, ODC identifies and aggregates information that is already publicly available. Though I have access to legal texts that are not in the public domain, I cannot cite them in my work and everything I write must be referenced. The task of fully and accurately explaining the law surrounding these land issues sometimes feels like an impossible task, and it has made me exceedingly grateful for the advantages and access to information that I have as an American law student.