Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia

Cambodia hit the international news circuit this week with the announcement of a verdict in the first case before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of  Cambodia (ECCC or “E triple C”) convicting Kaing Guek Eav (alias “Duch”), head of the infamous S-21 Toul Slang prison, of war crimes and crimes against humanity and sentencing him to 35 years in prison.  The sentence received mixed reactions from Cambodians and the international community, ranging from pride for completing the trial to outrage for the leniency and omission of certain victims’ claims.  Still others believe it is too late for “justice”, the accused are old, well-fed in prison, and even if found guilty they will hardly be punished, and argue the money could be better spent invested in the people of Cambodia today.

Interrogation Room at the Toul Sleng Prison, Phnom Penh

What is the ECCC?

The ECCC is one of several international criminal tribunals established for the purpose of trying individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide within the countries where those atrocities took place. Similar courts were established in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, East Timor, and Sierra Leone. These courts have been established in one of three ways: 1) by coercion through the Security Council (ICTY & ICTR) 2) by consent with a host government (ECCC), or 3) as part of a transitional administration (East Timor & Kosovo).

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia is a hybrid court system established in an agreement between the Cambodian government and the United Nations. It is a Cambodian Court, established through the domestic court system (rather than by UN resolution or treaty under the Rome Statute). It follows international legal standards  and is considered “extraordinary”  in that it applies not only the Cambodian Criminal Code (e.g. murder, torture, religious persecution) but also International Laws (e.g. genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes) as well.

The court is comprised of 3 Cambodian lawyers and 2 International (UN-appointed) lawyers,  4 Cambodian and 3 internationally-appointed judges, and business is conducted in Khmer, English, and French.  It is the first international tribunal using a Civil Law legal system.

The hybrid courts of the ECCC took many years of negotiation between the Cambodian government and the United Nations to establish and have received plenty of criticism along the way.  Most notably for their failure to contain (perceived) outside political interference by the ruling party, and inability to address conflicts of opinion and judgment between the Cambodian and International representatives of the court. In the most recent incident, in response to the International Investigating Judge’s pressure to decide,  the Cambodian Investigating Judge signed and then later crossed-out his rugatory signature endorsing the investigations into additional Khmer Rouge Trial cases known as 003 and 004. These cases are believed by some to involve charges against officials connected to members of the current ruling party and thus are politically unpopular. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has been public with his view against further investigations for fear they could lead to political instability or even internal war.

Transitional Justice

Nevertheless there is a lot to be said in favor of the ECCC, not only for their role in holding individuals accountable for the heinous crimes they allegedly committed under the Khmer Rouge regime. The courts, in conjunction with Cambodian NGOs, have worked to incorporate Cambodian people into the process of the courts.  When the trials first began there were over 31,000 people who wanted to be a part of the process by attending the trial. They organized busses from the provinces and they now do even more outreach to villages and schools, offering tours of the Toul Slang Museum and the ECCC premises free of charge.

In addition, many people believe the ECCC court sets an important example for accountability and the rule of law, with hopes that by holding the courts to international legal standards and practices, they may be helping to pave some of the road in Cambodia’s transitional justice process as well.

In fact just days before the announcement of a verdict in Duch’s case, the Cambodian government allowed the first public screening of “Enemies of the People”, a film with incredible footage of intimate interviews with individuals in charge of mass killings in the countryside, and some of the most senior Khmer Rouge officials, including Nua Chau aka “Brother Two” who worked side by side with Pol Pot in leading the regime during the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979.

Filmmaker Thet Sambath

In a post-screening discussion with filmmakers,  Thet Sambath and British documentarian Rob Lemkin, I began to think about other methods of healing and transformation that might be important for Cambodia as a nation, as a people, and for individuals alone to overcome the tragedies that took place during the Khmer Rouge.  It became apparent that the film, in its ability to illuminate truths that have so long been denied by those in the Khmer Rouge regime, and its screening in Cambodian communities around the world, could be one important step in that transformation.

For all of its challenges along the way, it seems at least for some, the ECCC is certainly another one of those steps in that process as well.