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The Khmer Rouge Tribunal: Justice through accountability

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An appeal hearing for Khieu Samphan at the ECCC in August of last year. ECCC

The Khmer Rouge Tribunal: Justice through accountability

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), commonly known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, helps bring justice to Cambodian victims through accountability by trying senior Khmer Rouge leaders, and helps Cambodia build important groundworks to prevent mass atrocities.

Allegation of crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot finally received the attention of the UN and the Cambodian government, when in August 2001 the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk signed the law on the establishment of the ECCC for the persecution of crimes committed during the period of Democratic Kampuchea.

The joint exercise of justice began its first mandate between 2006-2008 to trial limited senior Khmer Rouge leaders who were most responsible for the crimes the Pol Pot’s regime committed from 17 April 1975 to 6 January 1979. The ECCC is now winding down with the closure the last case by the end of this year. There are future works to remain on how to preserve the archives and make them accessible to the public as well as how ECCC prevents the recurrence of genocide in Cambodia and around the world, by the educational program designed for the younger generations of Cambodia to have a more holistic understanding of the darkest tragedy of Cambodia.

The ECCC court has trialed 5 senior Khmer Rouge leaders. They were Kaing Guek Eav alias Duch, former Chairman of Phnom Penh’s Security Prison S-21;NuonChea, former Deputy Secretary of the Communist Party of Cambodia; Khieu Samphan, former Head of State of DK; Ieng Sary, former Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of DK, and Ieng Thirith, former Social Affairs Minister of DK. Only Khieu Samphan is still presently alive.

On 3February 2012, ECCC sentenced life imprisonment for Duch of crime against humanity. He passed away in 2020. On 16November 2018, ECCC released other verdicts to sentence for life imprisonment for Khieu Samphan and Noun Chea of genocide, crime against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949. Noun Chea passed away in 2019. The court tried to complete legal due process for Ieng Sary and his wife Ieng Thirith but with no success due to the accused’s health circumstances. Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith passed away in 2013 and 2015, respectively.

After more than15 years, it is important to reflect some positive roles of this hybrid court to help bring justice through accountability to the Cambodian victims who lost loved ones and suffered traumas from the Khmer Rouge perpetrators when Democratic Kampuchea ruled Cambodia and what this means for the future efforts to prevent mass atrocities in Cambodia.

There have been reported challenges concerning the ECCC ranging from funding to some difficult processes with the ways the mix-court works. But the scope of this article focuses the discussion on how the ECCC helps contribute to justice through accountability and how this hybrid court helps develop some essential bases for Cambodia’s atrocity prevention which can in turn promote the norm of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) which was adopted at the 2005 UN World Summit.

There are two key roles the ECCC brings to Cambodia. First, the court helps bring justice, however limited it may be, to millions of Cambodian victims by trialling and sentencing some senior Khmer Rouge leaders and those most responsible for crimes committed during Democratic Kampuchea. There are many types of justice that Cambodians want from this court. But justice through accountability is one of most visible outcomes that the hybrid court contributes.

Some may argue why bothering having a long process to trial and sentence some Khmer Rouge leaders who are now so old. Those figures will be unlikely to see through their sentences for so long. But the key of these trials and sentences is the symbolic message that high-level Khmer Rouge leaders do not get away with their crimes. They answer to their crimes by receiving the ECCC’s verdicts. This helps bring some comfort to Cambodian survivors to see some leaders of the Khmer Rouge perpetrators trialed and convicted in accordance with due process of the national and international laws. This is a symbolic victory for the Cambodia’s fight against the culture of impunity, especially committed by people at the top. In Cambodia’s contemporary history, this might be among the first time that senior leaders who committed atrocious crimes against their own people, answered their crimes through the court of law.

Second, the ECCC helps build important groundworks to prevent mass atrocities in Cambodia. The process of the court helps add values to the Cambodian government’s staunch commitments to prevent at all cost of atrocities like the one committed by the Democratic Kampuchea during their reign of terror on Cambodia from 1975-1979.

In our view, three important groundworks for mass atrocity preventions come from the ECCC. To begin with, it establishes a precedent that rarely happens in the Cambodia’s contemporary history that justice through accountability is possible, and that top leaders answer to the consequences of their mass atrocious crimes against their people. This precedent sets a deterrence to prevent future political figures to contemplate and execute plans to use violence and mass murders against their own people. This precedent sends a strong symbolic message to weaken the culture of impunity that often leads to mass atrocities.

Secondly, all the investigations, interviews with victims, trails and sentences have helped shed light to invaluable information and data for future critical research about the Khmer Rouge. Drawing from comprehensive, historical and contemporary records obtained by the court process, these future studies are important to offer key lessons learnt and ways to prevent murderous regimes like the Democratic Kampuchea from ever coming to rule Cambodia again.

Thirdly, the ECCC symbolises strong commitments from Cambodia and the international community in upholding the principle of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) unanimously adopted by states at the UN World Summit in 2005 in order to protect populations from four mass crimes namely, genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing.

R2P has three pillars. The first pillar represents states’ commitment and responsibility to atrocity prevention. The second pillar is about the roles of the international community in helping states having capacity to prevent atrocities. The third pillar is about the roles of the international community, through all the process in the UN system, to halt mass atrocity crimes if states fail to uphold this responsibility.

The ECCC shows Cambodia’s efforts to uphold pillar 1. By having ECCC, Cambodia sends a strong political message to the world that it renounces mass atrocities, and commits to preventing mass crimes like the one committed by the Khmer Rouge regime to ever returning back to Cambodia.

Likewise, by helping support this court, the international community upholds its responsibility in pillar 2 to help Cambodia to prevent mass atrocities. This sets an important precedent of what the international community concretely can do to support atrocity prevention efforts. For the Cambodia case, with sustained commitments by the government in place to prevent atrocities, there might be other opportunities that both Cambodia and the international community can do together beyond the ECCC to strengthen the country’s capacity to strengthen peace and stability, and enhance its R2P commitment not only internally, but also regionally and beyond.

To conclude, the ECCC illustrates the long and difficult process to find justice and accountability for victim of mass atrocities. The UN itself failed to establish a tribunal much earlier due to the reluctant of some members of the Security Council. Nevertheless, the ECCC should be considered as a milestone for the holding of individual responsible for criminal act through the application of international standards that facilitate the rule of law by finding justice for the victims and deter future atrocity. Thanks to close collaboration between the Cambodia’s government and the international community for the past 15 years, ECCC helps contribute to ending the culture of impunity and promote the culture of seeking justice through accountability for the millions of Cambodians. The ECCC has started to lay essential foundations to support Cambodia’s atrocity prevention efforts which will help bring positive implications for peace and human security in Cambodia, and promote the norm of the Responsibility to Protect in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world.

Soeung Bunly is a research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, and member of the Network of Friends to R2P-Cambodia.

Him Raksmey is a research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace and a member of the Network of Friends to R2P-Cambodia. He’s also a lecturer at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP).

The opinions expressed are solely the authors’ own.

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