Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Hopes for Khmer Rouge tribunal influence on Cambodia’s courts ‘at risk’ amid political crackdown

Hopes for Khmer Rouge tribunal influence on Cambodia’s courts ‘at risk’ amid political crackdown

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
A packed public gallery watches closing statements in Case 002/02 at the Khmer Rouge tribunal earlier this year. ECCC

Hopes for Khmer Rouge tribunal influence on Cambodia’s courts ‘at risk’ amid political crackdown

When the Khmer Rouge tribunal was first established it was seen not only as a chance at justice for the regime’s victims, but as a potential example for the country’s courts to emulate. It would, it was speculated, lift up the justice system – a hope that experts at a recent panel say has been all but extinguished.

At the discussion – hosted in New York, last month by the Open Society Foundations, and for which an audio recording was recently made available – experts discussed the impact an ongoing political crackdown may have on the legacy of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).

“What’s the relationship between the deterioration of democracy and human rights and . . . the performance of this extraordinary chambers in the search for accountability?” Jim Goldston, the moderator and executive director of Open Society Justice Initiative, asked.

The tribunal was established to try the leaders of the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge regime, which oversaw the deaths of up to 2 million people.

So far, the court has convicted chief ideologue Nuon Chea, head of state Khieu Samphan and Kaing Guek Eav, who oversaw the S-21 prison, of crimes against humanity.

Putsata Reang, a Cambodian-American journalist, said the tribunal “came into existence really to do something that had not happened in Cambodia before, which was in fact to administer justice”.

She credited the court with bringing “standards for what justice means in Cambodia” following “an epidemic of mob rule”.

Heather Ryan, a consultant with Open Societies and a long-time court observer, said the tribunal “does serve as an example of a different level of justice than what Cambodians are used to seeing in the normal domestic courts”.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
A packed public gallery watches closing statements in Case 002/02 at the Khmer Rouge tribunal earlier this year. ECCC

That progress, however, is “now at risk”, said David Tolbert, with the International Centre for Transitional Justice.

In recent months and years, the courts have been widely viewed as a cudgel wielded against ruling party critics. The CNRP is currently facing dissolution at the hands of the Supreme Court and opposition leader Kem Sokha is awaiting trial on charges of “treason”.

Reang agreed that the court’s legacy – that justice is possible even when high-level leaders are involved – is hanging in the balance.

Noting the government’s violent crackdown on 2013 protests and the 2016 murder of political activist Kem Ley – which many suspect was a political assassination – Reang said Hun Sen is flaunting his own impunity.

“On the one hand, we could have former Khmer Rouge leaders who are partly responsible for the deaths of 2 million Cambodians be brought to justice . . . while at the same time we have a prime minister who literally is getting away with murder,” she said.

The discussion then moved to the international community’s response to the crackdown, with Tolbert saying cutting funding for the ECCC should be on the table.

“I don’t think you can tolerate extrajudicial killings. I don’t think you can tolerate the closing down of newspapers for political means and the manipulation of elections,” he said.

Open Society’s Ryan, however, said cutting aid to the court would only serve Hun Sen’s purpose. The premier has said that cases beyond the scope of the leaders already prosecuted would not proceed.

“I worry that maybe Hun Sen would be somewhat vindicated and would in fact like it if the international community pulled out of the court,” Ryan said.

This article has been updated with the event’s correct location. The Post apologises for the error.

MOST VIEWED

  • WHO: Covid in Cambodia goes into new phase

    The World Health Organisation (WHO) in Cambodia said that Cambodia has reached a new phase of the pandemic with “decreasing case numbers, high vaccination coverage and a more transmissible circulating variant threatening a hidden surge”. In a press release on September 6, the WHO said that

  • 'Pursue your goals, reach out to me': Young diplomat tapped as envoy to South Korea

    Chring Botum Rangsay was a secretary of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation before being designated as the new Cambodian ambassador to South Korea. According to her official CV published on the foreign ministry’s website, she started her first government

  • International air visitor arrivals dip 93%

    The number of foreign tourists entering Cambodia through the Kingdom’s three international airports witnessed a sharp 92.5 per cent year-on-year decline in the first seven months of this year, according to the Ministry of Tourism. The airports handled 51,729 international tourists in the January-July period versus

  • School reopening ‘offers model for other sectors’

    World Health Organisation (WHO) representative to Cambodia Li Ailan said school reopening process should be used as a role model for reopening other sectors currently mothballed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Li strongly supports the government’s decision to reopen schools, saying it is a decision

  • Covid jab drive for 6-11 age group to begin Sept 17

    Prime Minister Hun Sen has permitted Covid-19 vaccinations for over 1.8 million children aged 6-11 across the country from September 17 in order for them to return to school after a long hiatus. Hun Sen also hinted that vaccinations for the 3-6 age group will follow in

  • Is Cambodia’s microfinance sector running its course?

    Economic growth and the strength of the banking system might have prompted a slow decline of the microfinance segment that has been raising a population ‘The MFI business model is over,” opined David Van, a Cambodian investment expert, recently. He felt that in a couple