Cambodian Genocide Tribunal Winds Down After 16 Years

Court issues its final ruling . . . 

Last week, a UN-backed tribunal known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts in Cambodia (ECCC) rejected an appeal by former politician Khieu Samphan for his 2018 conviction for genocide and crimes against humanity carried out by the Khmer Rouge government, which ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. The decision is likely to be the court’s final ruling in holding top Khmer Rouge leaders to account for acts that claimed the lives of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians – nearly 25 per cent of the population at the time. Most of these deaths were from execution, starvation, or overwork in one of the regime’s labour camps. The ECCC was a hybrid of Cambodian and international judges and attorneys.

Too little, too late, too expensive?

The ECCC was formed at the request of the Cambodian government in 1997 to prosecute senior Khmer Rouge leaders. A decade later, five former Khmer Rouge leaders were arrested to stand trial. But the ECCC has faced criticism. One issue is the narrowness of its scope, which the Cambodian government limited to those at the apex of the Khmer Rouge leadership structure. Another is the cost: approximately C$450 million resulting in only three convictions. Two of those arrested – Ieng Sary and his wife, Ieng Thirith – never served time for their crimes, as the former died in 2013 before a verdict could be reached, and the latter was released from detention in 2012 with Alzheimer’s disease. Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge’s top leader, died of heart failure in 1998, after being captured by a Khmer Rouge splinter group, but before he could face trial.

On the record . . .

Others say that despite the court’s high cost and shortcomings, the ECCC was necessary. It gave the surviving victims an opportunity to be heard and have their experiences validated. Moreover, the painstaking collection of testimony and other types of documentation means there will be a robust record of the atrocities that took place during that period. That information could serve as a bulwark against future efforts to whitewash or minimize aspects of the Khmer Rouge’s rule or individual leaders’ culpability.