The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, also known as the Khmer Rouge tribunal, delivered a historic verdict on Friday. The court has found two former high-ranking Khmer Rouge cadres guilty of genocide against Cambodia’s Cham Muslim minority and ethnic Vietnamese.
The two, Nuon Chea, 92, and Khieu Samphan, 87, are the last two surviving senior members of the brutal group that ruled Cambodia in the 1970s.
Both men are already serving life sentences related to previous tribunal verdicts.
When this case began, it initially included four Khmer Rouge senior officials. Two of the co-defendants died of old age before the trial could be completed. It is possible that this is the last case the tribunal will ever hear. It has thus far only convicted three individuals at a cost of more than US$300 million in its 12-year run.
In an editorial piece for The Phnom Penh Post from 2000, six years before the court’s work began, prominent Cambodians, from Dr. Kek Galabru, one of Cambodia’s foremost human rights defenders, to Kem Sokha, the former head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party who was formerly imprisoned by now sits under a sort of house arrest, raised crucial questions about how a Khmer Rouge tribunal would be handled.
Kek demanded that the will of the Cambodian people be taken into account: “If the tribunal is a “gift” to the Cambodian people, why not ask the Cambodian people if they want a national or international tribunal? No one has asked the people!” she wrote at the time.
Sokha made the argument that, when it came to a Khmer Rouge tribunal, Cambodia’s entire democratic future hung in the balance:
“Sustainable national reconciliation cannot happen in Cambodia if the justice for its people is not ensured,” Sokha wrote, adding “No rights no democracy, no democracy no justice, no justice no national reconciliation.”
And Sok Sam Oeun, founder of the Cambodian Defenders’ Project had this to say about the goals for the court:
“First, to provide justice to Cambodian people who are victims of this regime; second, to heal Cambodian society and end nightmares of Cambodian victims; third, to find the truth, so that Cambodians and the rest of the world can know why 1.7 million people died; and finally, I hope that this tribunal can serve as a model to show Cambodian people what the principles of a fair trial are.”
Although the verdict today marks a landmark moment in the country’s post-Khmer Rouge history, it would be hard argue that the court has lived up to these incredibly lofty expectations.
Throughout its 12 years, the tribunal has been plagued by controversy, budget woes and a sense among the public that what has been done has been too little and far too late.
If the court has had one consistent identifiable struggle throughout its history, it’s funding.
Funding shortages have precipitated labor disagreements at the court—a translation department that has been severely understaffed, Cambodian workers going unpaid for months at a time, and resulting in several strikes by national employees.
And, in 2017, an investigation by The Phnom Penh Post revealed that the court was considering abandoning legal action against several former Khmer Rouge leaders accused of genocide at least in part due to lack of funding to move the cases forward.
The court’s legacy
As Sok Sam Oeun pointed out before the court even began the tribunal process, one of the unstated goals of the whole project was that the ECCC might serve as a sort of model after which the Cambodian justice system might be rebuilt.
Those that held that hope are likely to be disappointed with the current state of Cambodia’s courts, which have been used as another weapon in the ruling party’s arsenal to be wielded against the opposition, activists and critics.
In 2017, the CNRP, the country’s only viable opposition party was dissolved by the Supreme Court ahead of 2018’s national elections. And starting in the summer of 2017, the world witnessed the saga of filmmaker James Ricketson, in which the Australian national was arrested for flying a drone at a CNRP rally, put through a trial for espionage based on zero evidence, and convicted to six years in prison. He received a royal pardon a month later.
40 years later
Another chief complaint against the court has been its glacial pace. Many victims of the brutal Khmer Rouge worried they wouldn’t live to see this verdict.
“Justice for the victims is fading little by little,” said Bou Meng in 2013, one of the few survivors of Khmer Rouge’s Toul Sleng prison. “The court must speed up the trial. I deserve some kind of justice while I’m still alive.”
Bou Meng did live to see this day, but countless others did not.