Thursday, August 18, 2005

Cambodian Anti-Graft Body Must be Free of Political Influence, US Official Says

Cambodia must keep a planned anti-corruption agency free of political influence if it expects it to have credibility, a senior U.S. diplomat said Wednesday.

Mark Storella, acting head of the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia, made the comment at a government workshop to discuss long-awaited draft legislation to fight endemic corruption in the impoverished Southeast Asian nation.

"If the anti-corruption body is seen as under political influence, then it may also be seen as a political tool. If that is the case, rather than fighting corruption, the body could be seen as corrupt itself," Storella said.

Cambodia loses an estimated US $300 million to $500 million annually to corruption, according to a study prepared for the US Agency for International Development last year.

International donors—who pledged $504 million in aid to Cambodia last year—have linked the disbursal of funds to the country's adoption of an anti-corruption law and an agency to enforce it, as well as other reforms.

Donors have warned that the size of assistance may be reduced in the future if Cambodia fails to deliver on the promised reforms.

The proposed Supreme National Council Against Corruption will investigate allegations of impropriety in public agencies. It is unclear when it will be set up, however.

Storella described the independence of such a body as "fundamental," referring to widespread concerns about political influence in Cambodia interfering with key institutions such as the judiciary.

"Ultimately, corruption is not just a matter of economics or law, it can also pose a threat to stability," he said.

Government officials and representatives of private groups and donor organizations are attending the workshop, which runs through Thursday.

The participants are expected to suggest amendments to the draft law. It is not clear when it would be submitted to parliament for approval.

In his opening speech, Prime Minister Hun Sen said his government is serious about combating corruption—a promise similar to ones he has made in the past.

"(It) undermines confidence in investment ... and thwarts poverty reduction programs," he said.

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