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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - ICC move fuels debate on Cambodian case

Villagers in Preah Vihear block bulldozers belonging to Chinese sugar company Rui Feng from clearing disputed land earlier this year. Photo supplied
Villagers in Preah Vihear block bulldozers belonging to Chinese sugar company Rui Feng from clearing disputed land earlier this year. Photo supplied

ICC move fuels debate on Cambodian case

A new paper from the International Criminal Court laying out a shift in focus to crimes linked to environmental destruction and the unlawful dispossession of land has rekindled the debate over whether the court will launch an investigation into a case highlighting land-grabbing in Cambodia.

In light of Thursday’s policy paper, British lawyer Richard Rogers – who has filed a complaint asking the ICC to investigate Cambodia’s “ruling elite” for its role in land-grabbing, political persecution and a host of other crimes – said it was only a matter of time before the court opens a preliminary examination of Cambodia.

“In my view, the change of policy to include crimes relating to dispossession of land is a clear indication that the ICC prosecutor is getting ready to move on the Cambodia case,” Rogers said. “These cases are now priority cases for Ms [Fatou] Bensouda, the ICC prosecutor . . . so it would be surprising if she made this major policy change but did not follow through.”

According to Rogers’s law firm, Global Diligence, about 830,000 Cambodians have been adversely affected by land disputes.

Responding to the court’s policy shift, Human Rights Watch representative Phil Robertson said it was “very encouraging” that the ICC is taking land-grabbing seriously, but noted that it didn’t imply Cambodia’s government will put an end to the practice.

“This is a huge problem in Cambodia, it undermines development and is one of the most damaging policies,” Robertson said. “But I don’t think the government is committed to reversing the policy because there’s no indication they think they’ve done anything wrong.”

“It goes to show how oblivious they are,” he added.

However, international cri­minal law expert William Schabas cautioned that the policy paper’s significance is being “greatly exaggerated”.

“The paper mentions factors that the prosecutor would consider in selecting cases . . . But [in 2003] her predecessor said the same thing about economic factors, and he never did anything,” Schabas explained.

Though an investigation into the Cambodian case is unlikely, the decision will ultimately depend on the personal judgment of the prosecutor, he added. “People are going to be disappointed if they think this signifies some big shift.”

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