New Cambodian law seeks to provide thousands with a legal identity

Rebecca Root, IBA Southeast Asia Correspondent Monday 22 January 2024

The Cambodian government has introduced new legislation in an attempt to provide a legal identity to the thousands of people in the country who currently lack proof they even exist. The law includes a focus on civil registration – the process of recording births, deaths, marriages and divorces – and is set to be implemented from July 2024. It’ll tackle the issues created where a person doesn’t have a legal identity – for example, limits to their access to public services, human rights and social protections.

The legislation establishes Cambodia as a ‘leader’ in this area, says Romain Santon, Deputy Director for Asia, Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS) at global health organisation Vital Strategies. Many countries lack a comprehensive law on CRVS if they have one at all, he adds. Yet a legal identity is considered a human right under Article 6 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

Having such a record helps to generate statistics on population dynamics and health indicators that can then inform decision-makers. ‘It’s important to have those records so that future action can confidently rely on them,’ says Poorvi Chothani, Senior Vice-Chair of the IBA Immigration and Nationality Law Committee and Managing Partner of LawQuest in Mumbai.

Without a birth certificate a person will struggle to verify their nationality, obtain a passport, vote, or legally marry. According to the Centre of Excellence for CRVS Systems, comprehensive civil registration can also ensure the needs of vulnerable populations are met, improve gender equality and strengthen democracy.

With this in mind, the UN Sustainable Development Goals aim at 100 per cent of births and 80 per cent of deaths being registered globally by 2030. Data from Vital Strategies, however, shows that 40 per cent of deaths and 25 per cent of births still go unregistered worldwide, with the majority of these omissions being in low- and middle-income countries. Countries have so many competing priorities and limited resources that ensuring births and deaths are recorded might not be high on the list, explains Chothani. She adds that this can only change when there is government will.

Each country is starting at different stages. Most countries do have some form of civil registration so it’s about system improvement

Robert Eckford
Director, Data for Health, Global Health Advocacy Incubator

That will is present in Cambodia. Historically, the country has passed numerous sub-decrees on the issue but lacked an all-encompassing law and digital population record. This contributed to the fact that just 47 per cent of deaths were registered, according to data from 2017.

To get to grips with the issue, Cambodia created a National Strategic Plan for Identification, covering the years 2017 to 2026. In 2017, it approached Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Data for Health Initiative, which includes Vital Strategies and the Global Health Advocacy Incubator as partners, to bring the Plan to life via a new CRVS law.

The legislation will create a new digitised civil registration, vital statistics and identity management system to better record, via a unique registration code, all of a person’s life events. It also removes certain barriers to registration, connects to the health system and educational institutions and allows for access at the district level. ‘I believe that reforming toward a strong identification and civil registration management system in Cambodia contributes to strengthening the rule of law, respect for human rights, promoting national security and safety,’ said HE Sante Bandith Mao Chandara, Secretary of State for Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior, in a statement.

What makes Cambodia’s new legislation innovative, Santon says, is that it applies to anyone within the country, including those who are considered stateless. It further reduces the evidence required for registration and allows people to register outside of their usual place of residence. ‘We are hoping that it will make this service easier and more accessible to the population, reduce the costs, and improve the rates of registration, but also the timeliness, because some people might still want to register the birth of their child, but they will only go back to their province after five months or six months,’ explains Santon. The earlier you do it, the less likely it’s going to be omitted, he adds.

Between now and July, the government aims to train the CRVS workforce about the changes. As part of this process, the Cambodian government has held a workshop to explain the details of the legislation to over 700 people, including officials from civil registration, health and justice, as well as development partners and civil society organisations. This educational work is important, says Chothani, sharing that, despite India implementing a countrywide civil registration law in 1972, she still receives clients who don’t believe that registering a birth is mandatory.

Physicians in particular, Santon says, need to be trained on how to properly certify a death so that it goes beyond the immediate cause to that which is underlying, helping to better generate data on a population’s health. ‘If you report cerebral haemorrhage as the immediate cause of death, it’s informative, but if you don’t know the origin of the cerebral haemorrhage, you cannot prevent it,’ he says. For example, the cause of death could be brought on by a road traffic accident and if there are high numbers of these, that could suggest a need for government intervention.

Robert Eckford, Director of Data for Health at the Global Health Advocacy Incubator (GHAI), who’s based in Maryland, US, hopes other countries in the region will be able to take inspiration from Cambodia’s efforts to improve its CRVS systems. According to the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, all Southeast Asian countries have legal frameworks in place for civil registration, but some of these are fragmented, incomplete and lack any mention of the need for vital statistics. ‘Each country is starting at different stages. Most countries do have some form of civil registration so it’s about system improvement’, says Eckford. He explains that the GHAI conducts analysis of countries’ CRVS laws and then suggests amendments in line with its CRVS Systems Improvement Framework and in partnership with local lawyers.

In Asia, it’s currently working with Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines on draft laws it hopes will pass in the next few years and has previously supported Thailand and Papua New Guinea in implementing new policies. The governments of Vietnam and Malaysia are also currently working on updates.

Chothani says this is in line with a trend of an increasing number of Asian countries taking action to adopt a more formal registration process. She says lawyers can assist by advocating for governments to implement more comprehensive systems, while highlighting the benefits to clients of recording vital events at the community level.

Image credit: Digital Storm/AdobeStock.com