Cambodian tribunal puts justice in the spotlight

Khmer Rouge fighters glorified in the propaganda of the rebel movement Keystone

The resignation of a Swiss judge from the Khmer Rouge criminal tribunal illustrates a growing gap in understanding between the United Nations and Phnom Penh.

This content was published on March 30, 2012 minutes
Carole Vann, InfoSud/

Laurent Kasper-Ansermet announced on March 19 that he was stepping down from the tribunal investigating crimes committed by the former Pol Pot regime, because of political interference from the Cambodian government.

Conflict has arisen over whether or not further investigations should be launched into officials of the former Pol Pot regime, which was responsible for nearly 1.7 million deaths.

But behind this is a much wider question: the relevance of international courts and their limitations.
The so-called Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea (ECCC) were set up as the result of an agreement reached in 2003 between the Phnom Penh government and the UN.

The ECCC, staffed by both international and national judges, had the task of trying the top leaders and officials chiefly responsible for the killings carried out between 1975 and 1979.

The problem is that today they disagree about exactly who should be in the dock.
For Phnom Penh, the trials were to be confined to the two already started: that of Duch, director of the S21 extermination centre, who has just been given a life sentence, and that of four other top ranking Khmer Rouge officials.

But the UN says the opposition of the government of Hun Sen to any further trials is a violation of the agreement, and influential NGOs - led by Amnesty international and Open Society Justice Initiative – are talking about justice being denied to the victims, and accusing Phnom Penh of interference.

The price of stability

Dim Sovannarom, head of public relations at the ECCC, who – like most Cambodians – lost family members in the camps, sees it differently.

“Don’t be more Catholic than the pope,” he says, irritated by what the Cambodian side sees as ready-made judgements by the international community.  “We need justice more than you do.”

He says the international judges are not familiar with the local context. Contacted by phone by, Ansermet did not wish to comment.

The Belgian political scientist Marc Jennar, who knows Cambodia well having lived there for more than 20 years, and who is a regular adviser to the government, says the roots of the misunderstanding go back to before 2003.

“It is unfortunate that those who negotiated the agreement [the representatives of the UN and of Phnom Penh] did not define exactly who was to be regarded as top-ranking leaders and those mainly responsible for the killings,” he says.
“Former officials who have blood on their hands are living in the Khmer Rouge areas. But the government concluded an amnesty with the former Khmer Rouge. And that is the price to pay.”

Reaching closure

For François Roux, the former lawyer for Duch, who now heads the Defence Office of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the tensions surrounding the Cambodian trials illustrate the difficulties of the international justice system.

“The establishment of international tribunals is a political decision,” he says.

“But afterwards the judges must be completely independent in the way they follow the matter through to the end. You find the same problem in Lebanon, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and South Africa.

"So given this, what are we to do? Nobody knows the answer, other than to recognise that these tribunals have a high symbolic function, which is doubtless useful to society but unsatisfactory as far as fairness and the law are concerned.”
What is needed is to know how many symbols a society needs in order to be able to rebuild itself. Chum Mey, one of the last survivors of S21, does not want any more trials.

“These tribunals are a very expensive way of conducting a judicial procedure which is not very satisfactory,” he explains.

As far as he is concerned, the arrest of further officials could lead to chaos in the country. Together with other victims he has set up an association which admits former Khmer Rouge who are ready to take part in reconstructing the country.

“For me it’s a way of reaching closure with the past.”

Exploiting human rights

The well-known film maker Rithy Panh, another camp survivor, is also annoyed by what he calls the “double standards” of the international judges.

“Why is it that when the judges question the Cambodians, they ask such stupid questions as the shape of the box into which they had to urinate, whereas with western witnesses they ask intelligent questions about ethics and morality in the face of a crime against humanity?” he wonders.
This “arrogance” is a real stumbling block.

“The government is often clumsy in the way it communicates,” Jennar admits. “But the radicalism of some international organisations, which tend to confuse the promotion of human rights with a crusading war, does a lot of harm. A state based on the rule of law cannot be built from one day to the next in a country where the first university department was reopened in 1990. But that is something the international actors don’t realise, or pretend not to realise.”
Roux thinks there is a real danger of exploiting human rights in the name of an ideal of justice.

“The judges genuinely believe that when they are sitting in an international tribunal, it is their duty to launch a crusade against impunity. But they need to remember that they are there solely to judge the person who is in the dock.”


The Khmer Rouge regime took power on April 17, 1975, and was overthrown on January 7, 1979.
Perhaps up to three million people perished during this period, which was followed by a civil war. That war finally ended in 1998, when the Khmer Rouge political and military structures were dismantled.
In 1997, the government requested the UN to assist in establishing a trial to prosecute the senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge.
In 2001, the Cambodian National Assembly passed a law to create a court to try serious crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge regime. This court is called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea (Extraordinary Chambers or ECCC).
An agreement with the UN was ultimately reached in June 2003 detailing how the international community would assist and participate in the ECCC.
In May 2006, 30 Cambodian and UN judges were approved to preside over the ECCC. The judges were sworn in in July 2006.

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Cambodia dates

1997 Surrender of last armed Khmer Rouge.

1998 Death of Pol Pot, holding out in Anlon Veng.

2007 Creation of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea (ECCC).

February 2009 Trial of Duch opens in Phnom Penh.


July 2010 Duch sentenced to 30 years in jail. Appeal launched.


June 2011 Trial of four highest ranking surviving Khmer Rouge officials opens in Phnom Penh.


February 2012 Duch sentenced to life imprisonment.

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