A new study probing the impressions of Phnom Penh students of the Khmer Rouge tribunal revealed they see the international court more as an educational tool than a means for justice.
In the study, conducted by Stanford University’s WSD Handa Center for Human Rights, 83 students were surveyed in focus groups, along with 16 civil society members, government actors and educators.
“Students identified the potential for the Tribunal to educate their generation about the past as its biggest potential legacy; ranking this higher than judicial, psychological, or capacity-building legacies,” the report read.
Of the 65 students who responded to a question about the court’s purpose, 32 percent said it was to “teach the next generation about what happened or learn the truth”, 18 percent said it was to provide justice or reconciliation and 15 percent said it was to prosecute the Khmer Rouge leaders. Another 14 percent said the tribunal – also known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia – was about healing the suffering of the past.
“This is interesting because often in discussions about the ECCC , it is these other legacies that come up more often – ending impunity, strengthening the capacity of domestic courts or providing justice or some type of healing for the victims,” said lead author Caitlin McCaffrie.
“In contrast to some commonly held views that young people are just not interested in the history, we found most people were very curious, they had opinions and they had a lot of questions.”
In the words of one student, “the purpose of the tribunal is for the next generation who did not experience the regime, so they can know what happened”.
Yet Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, stressed the tribunal was, first and foremost, a court.
“The ECCC is a court of law, not a history department,” he said, saying seeing the tribunal as a teaching tool “completely undermines” the years and millions invested in it. “Its legacy is justice . . . to prosecute the Khmer Rouge leaders.”
But the findings came as little surprise to both sides of the courtroom in the current case against former Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan.
Nuon Chea defender Victor Koppe said the findings “made perfect sense” as there was a strong yearning for Cambodians to learn about the events during the Democratic Kampuchea era.
Koppe said the majority of Chea’s closing brief in Case 002/02 was dedicated to expounding on the former Brother Number Two’s theory – dubbed “The Crocodile” – about the history of the communist movement and the role of Vietnam.
“Explaining this history was indeed the sole reason for Nuon Chea to keep participating in these extremely flawed proceedings until the end and for me not to withdraw as his lawyer,” Koppe said.
International co-prosecutor Nicholas Koumjian – whose team has derided Chea’s crocodile as “fake history” – took a different slant. “A critical legacy for all international criminal courts, whether we are talking about Nuremberg, the Yugoslav or Rwandan tribunals or the ECCC, is to contribute to greater understanding of the truth about momentous historical events,” he said. “As the philosopher said, ‘Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it’.”