In preparation of the completion of the judicial workload and subsequent commencement of residual functions at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), the Co-Rapporteurs on Residual Functions related to Victims collated ideas from the public and advised the ECCC Administration to build its residual work related to victims on domestic initiatives, making the residual work inclusive and sustainable.

With this in mind, I visited the Department of Psychology at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) to follow up on its proposal to the Co-Rapporteurs for a Cambodian mental health survey. My visit exceeded my expectations – students were beyond keen to examine the psychological impacts of the Khmer Rouge regime in today’s contemporary society.

One imperative question asked was why young Cambodians today, when they are enjoying peace and prosperity, should study the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia’s troubled past. My response was because the causes of war are generated during peace time; and without knowledge, these causes are invisible to most.

RUPP – a diversity of studies, resources and research tools promoting education

On August 16, 2023, I enjoyed a short troll from the RUPP’s Institute of Foreign Languages (IFL) to the Psychology Department. I saw more buildings than when I graduated in 1994, such as a sports building, a separate building for the Department of Media and Communications (DMC), and a nice coffee place. And I saw students working at the tables in the area. Upon arriving at the Psychology Department, I was much impressed by the intellectual bustle and the warm reception of the department chief.

Psychology is new to Cambodian and counts few professionals. With an increase in societal demand, the university has invested in the new study and I was pleased to see the good progress made with the substantive programmes, resource allocation and research tools made accessible to young Cambodian students. This is good nation building!

I also met a previous classmate of mine, who is now director of the Institute of International Studies and Public Policy. The institute offers studies in microeconomics, macroeconomics and statistics. I complimented him, “I studied the same courses as a prerequisite to an International Relations MA degree.” This looks like a big meeting of the minds. Students of any degree should be required to study these essential subjects.

He asked me: What is the utility in the ECCC for Cambodia and how does it benefit the Cambodian people?

As with many others I discuss these issues with, my classmate had less knowledge of the ECCC than what is presented as criticism; it’s too long and too costly. I used our friendly discussions to expand his knowledge, by drawing his attention to the very much under-communicated deliveries of the ECCC.

I talked about the link between the ECCC’s work and Cambodia’s unique win-win philosophy, where the conflicting parties jointly gains on creating and maintaining peace and constitute integral parts of a united Khmer society free of war and bloodshed. This philosophy explains much of the standing criticism against the ECCC related to “too few trials” and the “need for more trials”. With the ECCC being a domestic tribunal, its mandate was promulgated by Cambodian lawmakers, unlike elsewhere where the tribunals are created and mandated by international treaties.

The ECCC mandate is limited in substance, in time and in persons to stand trial. In agreement with the UN, the Cambodian National Assembly decided that only senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime and those most responsible for the crimes of the regime will stand trial. The phrasing of personal jurisdiction may for some be a manifestation of the win-win philosophy. With only the senior leaders and those most responsible standing trial, the lower ranked former Khmer Rouge were not held individually accountable for the regime’s atrocities.

This way, Cambodia upheld its commitment to the historical settlement made, and to the hard-earned peace and societal reconciliation.

The concept of limited personal jurisdiction, aimed to maintain peace and reconciliation, was discussed with the UN for nearly a decade before being adopted into laws. The lengthiness of the negotiations implies that the international partner in the ECCC had different views on who would fall within the mandate of the tribunal. With the national and international ECCC judges subsequently differing in much the same way as the parties during the negotiations, the ECCC became the hot spot for discussions – who should stand trial for the crimes of the Khmer Rouge regime?

Eventually, and with the judges agreeing to disagree on how the personal jurisdiction was to be understood, only the national leaders of the Khmer Rouge were held to account before the ECCC. With the judicial proceedings completed in 2022, we can now do a stocktaking on the societal benefit of the ECCC:

Importantly, after decades of anxious waiting, justice for the Khmer Rouge victims was finally provided. With accountability for crimes limited to the national leadership of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s unique peace settlement remained undisturbed. And with the judgements delivered, the Cambodian people finally have a source of reliable information which provides us with the unbiased history of the Khmer Rouge and the Democratic Kampuchea regime. There can no longer be denial of the crimes and suffering – and the history cannot be rewritten by revisionists.

Cambodian nationals were represented throughout the structures of the tribunal, and at all levels, providing qualified insight into the society the tribunal addressed. Sovereignty was upheld by Cambodian majority representation and legitimacy was achieved through international partnership and professional contributions.

With the ECCC located in-country, victims-survivors and the Cambodians public were able to firmly engage with the accountability processes personally, in the unique role of civil parties with meaningful procedural rights not existing at other tribunals; or as witnesses with a powerful voice. Other victim-survivors and the Cambodian public were able to see the trial hearings first-hand from a massive public gallery of 500 seats.

Over the years with public hearings, almost 250,000 people observed the trial proceedings from this gallery. “That number exceeds the total number of spectators for the Nuremberg and Tokyo military tribunals after World War II, the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and the International Criminal Court combined.”

Though transitional justice cannot be measured by monetary scales, by placing the ECCC in Cambodia, being a low-cost country, the cost of the proceedings was only a fraction of what international courts generally requires of funding. And on December 9, 2023, the 75th Anniversary of the Genocide Convention, to which Cambodia and 152 other states are signatories, it is mindblowing that the ECCC was the first ever to hold a former Head of State accountable for crimes of genocide.

Back to meeting my classmate at the RUPP, I was happy to share these achievements with him and told him that he and any Cambodian could find out more by visiting the the ECCC’s newly launched Resource Centre located in the heart of Phnom Penh, offering workspaces, databases and a well-equipped library.

Students tour and discussion at the ECCC

Peace and Justice are complementary, the Cambodia way.

Students visiting the ECCC are very much interested in its work. Recently, I talked with visiting students from the RUPP, Royal University of Law and Economics (RULE), and Cambodia University of Management and Technology (CUMT) about the awareness of causes of wars being generated during time of peace as well as how the ECCC benefits Cambodia’s development.

In 1960s Cambodia was peaceful. Why did wars happen in the 1970s? In fact, the events that caused wars occurred in the previous peace time. The causes were at that time not seen as such, and they were identified only after the violence occurred. It was bitter and destructive political rhetoric and underground dissenting activities, in the name of good.

Going forward, to maintain our hard-earned peace, we need to know our history and the facts; the ECCC archive provides us with these. We need to avoid the extreme and promote tolerance. That’s up to us to embrace!

Sorya Sim is legal consultant to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).

The views expressed in this article are his own.